Phillies second baseman Chase Utley continues taking ground balls at third base and could soon be known as third baseman Chase Utley. Sunday's television broadcast showed Utley taking ground balls at third base in Houston, and Monday, the Inquirer's Matt Gelb wrote that Utley took more ground balls. That the Phillies and Utley are devoting so much time to this is indicative of one thing: Utley needs to leave second base.
Utley's degenerative knee condition is well-known. This is not an injury that will heal; this is something that will affect Utley as long as plays baseball. The demand of playing second base is high, going after balls up the middle. We all know Utley will always give maximum effort as long as he is there. But, that works against him as he tries to manage what essentially is having no cartilege in his knees. So, a less demanding position is in order. The question, then, is which.
The obvious position for Utley to play would be first base. Utley got to play some first base his rookie season in the absence of Jim Thome pretty much seamlessly. Of course, the Phillies have four years and $100 million tied up there in Ryan Howard.
The outfield? Utley did try that a bit earlier this season. Juan Samuel noted that the move from second base to the outfield is not any easier on the knees. Trying to fill out a roster, outfielders are easier to acquire than infielders. So Chase Utley will get a chance to play third base, it would appear.
Utley did spend a season at third base...10 whole years ago. He had 28 errors at third base but many scouts thought his defense improved as the season went on. Third base does not require the movement up the middle that a second baseman does, but does require a quick reflex and the ability to make a strong throw. Simply put, third base is simply much closer to home plate than the second base bag and there are few double plays to turn at third. It could be a good move for him.
So what does Utley think of it so far? He told Gelb:
"It's still a work in progress," he said. "I'm still working on it, still putting the time into it and so far I feel like I've progressed a little bit, but I feel like there is still room for improvement. I've been out there four times and every time I've felt like I've done something different and it's an improvement, but ground balls off a fungo are different than ground balls in a big-league game."
A big league game would be nice. Until the Phillies are eliminated (and they very well may be), I doubt that he will start a game at third base. That could happen before the season ends. If third base is where Utley ends up, the Phillies will be very lucky, approaching an offseason where third basemen are scarce.
The Phillies reportedly tried to acquire Chase Headley from the Padres at the trade deadline. Recently Amaro said that "the price is too high" for acquring a third basemen in trade, not specifically talking about Headley. Free agents out there this offseason include an oft-injured and aged Scott Rolen, former Phillie Miguel Cairo, Geoff Blum, and Eric Chavez. There is really nothing to choose from, considering Rolen probably would never return to Philly.
At second base the Phillies have internal options Kevin Frandsen (second base is his natural position), Freddy Galvis, and prospect Cesar Hernandez. Frandsen and Galvis could be low-cost options who could bat lower in the batting order who provide solid defense. If the Phillies acquired a big bat outfielder, the need for offense from second base would be somewhat negated. Besides, Utley was always the third base-quality bat that allowed the Phillies to get by with third basemen such as Pedro Feliz and Wes Helms. Placido Polanco always had a second basemen's bat. The Phillies will need a stopgap second baseman, but the long-term second base solution may come in the form of Cesar Hernandez.
Hernandez is a switch-hitting second basemen who hit .302 in 102 games at AA Reading this year before spending 30 games at AAA Lehigh Valley. At AAA Hernandez hit .248. Hernandez combined for 30 doubles and 12 triples in 2012. Hernandez stole 21 bases in 2012, but was caught 15 times, so surely he could use some tuning in that regard. It's conceiveable that he gets a good look in Spring and could have a shot at the major leagues.
So, Utley at third gets him out of the wear and tear of second base. It also gives the Phillies the advantage of finding a second baseman instead of a third baseman. It sounds like this move is going to work out for Utley and the Phillies.