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Utley Considering Third Base?

Posted by Eric Seidman, Thu, August 30, 2012 11:11 AM | Comments: 15
Analysis, Injuries, Odds And Ends, Offseason, Opinion

The hot corner has been a hot topic for Phillies fans all season long. The organization lacks a major-league-ready prospect to take over, and hasn’t decided if they will try and fill the position internally, via trade, or through free agency.

Players like Kevin Frandsen aren’t exactly long-term solutions. Freddy Galvis broke his back earlier in the year and can’t hit: he remains a major question mark from standpoints both health- and performance-related. Placido Polanco has an affordable option for 2013 but proved once again that he can’t stay healthy and can’t hit much when health isn’t an issue. The Phillies could mix and match and eke out some production from these players next season, but it’s clear they are in need of a long-term solution.

Frandsen won’t sustain his current pace next season. Polanco’s hitting is unlikely to improve while his defense probably stands to worsen. Fontenot is gone, and players of that ilk can’t be counted on for much. All told, the pupu platter platoon the Phillies could utilize next season has a high probability of floundering. There may be another option.

Chase Utley approached Ruben Amaro on Wednesday to present an unconventional idea: potentially move Utley to third base next season if the keystone was easier to fill internally or externally. This type of creative problem-solving is exactly what the Phillies need. While it’s unclear if it would work, it is absolutely worth a shot as it could greatly benefit both sides.

The Phils have gotten 1.6 WAR out of their third basemen this year, the 6th-worst tally in the National League. Frandsen accounts for 0.9 WAR, based on his torrid hitting in 112 plate appearances. Polanco fielded very well and has 0.5 WAR to his line. Mike Fontenot produced 0.1 WAR. While 1.6 WAR might seem respectable and close to league average — 2 WAR is generally considered league average on the whole — NL teams have averaged 2.7 WAR from their third basemen so far.

Utley has played in 51 games this season, racked up 219 plate appearances… and has 2 WAR already. He is on pace to play a little under half of a season while doubling the third base production the Phillies have received.

His hitting is an improvement over last year, and he remains a plus-defender. While he derives value from fielding well at a tough position like second base, he probably isn’t a +12 defender anymore. Moving him off of the position is easier to stomach in that context, especially considering that it could result in his staying on the field more often.

This move could benefit the Phillies if they believe that second base is easier to fill than third, and if it means Utley can play 130 games next season instead of 80.

The move theoretically helps Utley because he would play a less taxing position and increase his value as he approaches free agency. His contract expires at the end of next season and very good everyday third baseman sounds a lot better to interested suitors than perpetually injured elite second baseman. There is an obvious assumption here that playing third base would prove less taxing. Positional adjustments peg both positions as equally difficult, though the reasons differ.

At second base, Utley has to range a ton to both sides, especially given the defensive deficiencies of Ryan Howard. At third base, he would play next to another elite defender in Jimmy Rollins, who covers ground well. The difficult aspect of third base involves timing: it’s nicknamed the hot corner because balls are scorched in that direction off the bat.

It’s clearly unknown if Utley could handle the position’s quirks but it stands to reason that it would be better for his body than having to run all over the infield to snag grounders.

The absolute key to this idea is that Utley hasn’t played third base since 2002, and just because someone previously played a position doesn’t mean they can pick it right back up. Pat Burrell played third base in college and he couldn’t even handle left field, the easiest position to play aside from first base, towards the end of his Phillies tenure. Jim Thome used to play third base and he could barely stand up at first base this year without spasming.

Utley ranges very well at second base but his arm isn’t the strongest. If he has trouble every now and then reaching first base from second, it would take a lot of adjustments for a move to third base to work. Ruben Amaro even acknowledged that Utley’s biggest problem in 2002 was his arm: Amaro estimated that Utley made 15-20 errors in his first 40 games at the position. It isn’t impossible for him to succeed at a new position, but we shouldn’t use the whole ‘he-did-it-in-2002′ as evidence to suggest he could handle the position now. For the purposes of a 2012-2013 position swap, that experience is irrelevant.

Aside from whether he could handle the position, and whether it would help him stay on the field, there is the matter that the free agent crop of second baseman is just as anemic as its third base class.

One of the proposed benefits to moving Utley off of second base is that the Phillies would have an easier time filling that position than they would solving third base. It’s a great and creative approach, but these are the potential free agent second basemen next year: Jeff Baker, Jeff Keppinger, Freddy Sanchez and Skip Schumaker. Here are the shortstops who could play second base: Geoff Blum, Luis Rodriguez, Ryan Theriot.

The first two players are platoon specialists. The latter three are not everyday starters, or particularly good players. Sanchez just had season-ending back surgery in July. Schumaker is hitting well after two awful years at the plate, but he’ll be 33 years old next year and doesn’t have an established track record of success.

The Phillies shouldn’t sign any of those guys, which puts them right back at square one. Whether they stick with Utley at second and seek a third baseman, or move him to third and look for a second baseman, they have two options: go with someone internally or trade for someone. Since the internal options are most likely Frandsen and Galvis — Cody Asche is at least 1.5 years away — a trade still seems like the most viable solution.

If that’s truly the case, then Utley going to third base boils down to the team’s assessment of both a) his ability to handle the position and b) if the move can help him stay on the field in 2013 and extend his career beyond next season. Regardless of what happens, the Phillies, and Utley in particular, should be lauded for this creative approach.

Not every interesting idea sticks, but this is the type of out-of-the-box thinking this organization has lacked for years. In all likelihood, Utley plays second base next season, but his idea certainly provides some tasty food for thought.

Avatar of Eric Seidman

About Eric Seidman

Eric Seidman has written 64 articles on Phillies Nation.

Eric offers his unique analytical perspective to Phillies Nation and is a regular contributor on FanGraphs.com.

 
 
  • Posts: 0 BART SHART

    Might be a good move for Utley and the team. If his knees hold up and his arm is strong enough to make the throws.

     
  • Posts: 0 Psujoe

    Unless you can get a 2b or 3b with 20 HR power I see no reason why Frandsen doesn’t get a shot. If Utley goes to third who plays 2b? Galvis? Hernandez? Frandsen isn’t going to hit .340, but he could hit .280+ with no power.

     
  • Posts: 0 TheDipsy

    Chase can’t throw, so………I mean REALLY can’t throw.

    The Dipsy

     
    • Posts: 0 Keith

      He can throw, he just can’t throw from 3rd base. I think Phillies fans might not like having a 3rd baseman that has to one- or two- hop the ball to first base. It’ll get old pretty quickly.

       
  • Posts: 0 George

    One could certainly argue with the notion that the Phils don’t usually use any “out-of-the-box thinking” when they make roster moves. Polanco, for instance, hadn’t played third for years, but management thought he could still do it. Galvis was the starting second baseman earlier this year, even though he’d never played there. Willis was signed to be a lefty specialist even though he’d always been a starter. Thome was added as a possible part-time 1st baseman, after years of not playing defense. Those were just the most recent moves (there have been others in the past), and don’t include the attempts to move minor leaguers to new positions.

    That said, I think Utley at 3rd should be looked into, but if ANY signs occur of possible injury due to the sudden starts required of a 3rd baseman, that whole idea MUST be dropped, and dropped quickly.

     
    • Posts: 146 Eric Seidman

      Avatar of Eric Seidman

      The Dontrelle move definitely qualifies, and I applauded that signing when it happened. The others, I’m not so sure about. Galvis was moving to an easier position. Thome was never really considered a legit first base option. That was conjecture that picked up steam when fans thought Thome could play more. Polanco is an interesting case, but given his skill-set I don’t consider it as out-of-the-box as this idea with Utley. I didn’t mean to make it sound like the Phillies never act this way, but it’s something they haven’t done frequently until the end of last year. It’s refreshing that they are continuing to think this way.

       
      • Posts: 0 George

        Concerning Galvis, no position is easier if you’ve never played it. Thome, despite what you say, WAWS considered an option to play first on a very limited basis; he was traded only when it was proven that he couldn’t. I’ll add that using Kendrick the way he’s been used isn’t exactly the way pitchers are normally handled. Other moves have been taking a chance on Werth when most teams considered him damaged goods, and pulling in Pedro Martinez for half a season when it was questionable that he could still pitch.

        Maybe they don’t do it frequently, but most players don’t have the ability to be used in unusual situations, and most other teams don’t do it often, either. I don’t really care how often or not often it’s done; but when the Phils have done it, it’s usually been in circumstances where there was a good chance the player had the skills to succeed, as with Polanco, Galvis, and Kendrick.

         
  • Posts: 0 TheDipsy

    If Utley is going anywhere, it should be LF. From what I understand he is a converted third baseman is he not. Further his conversion to 2B was because of his arm strength. I need to see Ruf in left field porno…..I mean “pronto”.

    The Dipsy

     
    • Posts: 0 George

      Utley has stated he’d rather not play left. There’d be way too much territory to cover out there, anyway.

       
  • Posts: 0 Phil Ease

    It takes Chase a half hour to release a fielded ball on a throw to first from the right side of second base. He might be able to throw from third in time to get someone like Ryan Howard out at first. He might not.

     
  • Posts: 0 BART SHART

    I also want to see Ruf play left field. He cannot be any worse than Burrell.

     
  • Posts: 4 Drewcifer

    Avatar of Drewcifer

    George… how did those “out-of-the-box” ideas work again? 2 of them were complete failures, Galvis is TBD, and Polanco comes and goes. Phils management should avoid thinking that far outside of the box in the near future.

    I fail to see why Frandsen is not a viable option until Asche is ready. There’s no way Frandsen can keep his pace up, but I also can’t see him falling to Polly’s level of the last year and a half. Not to mention he’ll do it for a fraction of the price. You can’t have a team of all-stars, and guys like Frandsen and Pierre are necessary low-end pieces to keep around while developing talent like Asche and Gillies. Galvis doesn’t have enough of an arm for third base either – he needs to be groomed to replace Rollins in another two years, with Cesar Hernandez being groomed to replace Chase.

    The Phils do not need drastic changes to be competitive. Stay the course, get healthy. This year was an anomaly. The big contracts have a few more years left, develop the youngsters, try to land a stud third baseman or outfielder in the off-season, if you can’t, no big deal. The Phils have the pieces and they have a future. The sky is not falling. Knee-jerk reactions and out-of-the-box thinking are not needed.

    Keep calm, carry on.

     
    • Posts: 0 George

      I never said these were successful moves. I only stated that the Phils at least were willing to try something different.

      Please tell me how far outside is too far? I don’t think any of those moves were that far out. They just didn’t work, as do many decisions, even the “normal” ones. (You certainly can’t call using MiniMart as a utility man “outside,” because he’s always been one. But look at how good HE’S been! Or look how good Sanches was as a reliever, HIS normal role.)

      As far as Polanco “comes and goes” you’re off base. He’d be coming and going at his usual position, too; and he’s proven to be a very good defensive 3rd baseman, which is the issue people had doubts about.

      Shortstop requires the longest, strongest throws, so Galvis must not have the arm for that, either, even though it’s always been his natural position.

       
  • Posts: 0 Derek

    Cody Asche-I haven’t seen him play, but I see his numbers and he seems like he’s doing really well… Why does everybody seem to say that he is 1.5 -2 years away? Can somebody elaborate on that and help me understand… In no way am I clamor ing for him to be our opening day 3B, but on paper it seems like he’s worth a shot. Anybody’s help is appreciated.

     
    • Posts: 0 Kevin

      Asche started in A ball this year and was promoted to AA – he had trouble adjusting defensively and to the level of pitching. He has since gotten his average up to .280/.290 (I haven’t checked it in a few days). And he has shown some defensive miscues at 3B.

      In order to get promoted, a player must be able to show they’ve done all they can do (developmentally) at the previous level (as you get higher in the system, the length of time to show you can handle the levels increases) – as adjusting to the higher level of play can take time. He is on track to start at AA next year – and generally, organizations like to see a prospect show that he can handle AA for a full season before promoting them.

      Also, at 22, Asche is still developing his power. At 3B, a preferable power position, a younger player has to grow into his power.

       
 
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