The Strange Case of Chase Utley

As spring training slowly draws near, most of the Phillies roster is a done deal. There are a couple question marks here and there, one of which is what happens with Chase Utley? The pending signing of former Phillie Doug Glanville could provide a road block to Utley's chances of making the major league roster.

Phillies General Manager Ed Wade announced late last week that the club was close to reaching an agreement with free-agent outfielder, and former Phillie, Doug Glanville. This wasn't exactly front page news following a two-week period that saw Paul Owens and Tug McGraw pass away, and Pete Rose finally admit to betting on baseball.

When the Phillies and Glanville finally do reach agreement this week on a minor league deal, it is likely to cause a reaction from the Phillies fan base somewhat akin to "Whaaaaaaaa…?!" I have to admit that when I first heard of this possibility several weeks ago, my first reaction was "Why Doug Glanville, how does this help us? It would make more sense to sign Jerry Glanville, at least he might bring Elvis with him." However, this transaction isn't really about Doug Glanville; this is about the strange career of Chase Utley and whether he is ready for prime-time.

By almost all accounts, Chase Cameron Utley possesses major league hitting skills - perhaps All-Star caliber hitting skills. He was an All-American second baseman coming out of UCLA in 2000 where he hit .382 with 22 home runs and 69 RBI. The Phillies made him their number one draft choice (15th overall) in the June 2000 draft. Utley hit .307 that summer in 40 games with the Phils short-season team in Batavia. In 2001, Utley's average dropped a little while playing a full-season at high-A Clearwater, but he still showed uncommon power for his slight frame, smacking 43 extra-base hits including 16 home runs. Then, a strange thing happened to Chase Utley.

Phillies third baseman Scott Rolen famously "torched" the entire Phillies organization on the first day of spring training 2002, inviting his inevitable trade later that summer. Searching the organization for Rolen's replacement, the Phillies brass was intrigued by Utley's raw power and hard-nosed approach, so they asked him how he felt about trying third base. The handling of Utley during the 2002 season was an interesting story. In their haste to find a replacement for Rolen that the fans would love, the Phillies skipped Utley over the AA Reading club and sent him – in just his second full season of professional baseball - to AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Did I mention that he was asked to play a position he'd never played before?

To be fair, Chase Utley has never been considered a great fielder. Although he was the starting shortstop as a freshman at UCLA, the Bruins moved him to designated hitter by the end of his freshman season. He eventually found his way back onto the field at second base, but the Phillies knew his defensive limitations when they drafted him.

Over the first two months of the 2002 AAA season, Utley's defense at third was brutal. However, he did continue to show the gap power that is so intriguing. His.263 batting average that season was about…uh… average, but he clubbed 39 doubles and hit 17 home runs. Even more impressively, he cut down on errors significantly over the second half of the season. Phillies fans thought they actually had their third baseman of the future, and he was just a step away from the majors. Then, a strange thing happened to Chase Utley.

The Phillies signed free agent third baseman David Bell to a four-year contract in November of 2002, an interesting move for a team whose AAA third baseman was considered one of their Top-10 prospects. Although the Phillies clearly believed that Utley was going to be good, they also knew that he was never going to be a major league third baseman. That experiment was over; the Phillies moved Utley back to second.

The issue wasn't Utley's glove work. He has a serviceable glove along the lines of Todd Walker, Adam Kennedy, or Jeff Kent. The issue was his arm strength and mechanics (or lack thereof.) The Phillies moved Utley back to second because he simply didn't possess the "pop" necessary to be effective from across the diamond. This might be a good time to point out that Utley doesn't exactly have the "pop" necessary to play second base either. Watching Utley turn the double play always puts me in mind of Muhammad Ali, because his throws "float like a butterfly."

With a second year at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, and a move back to the position that he had played since his second year in college, Utley tore the cover off the ball in 2003. In 113 games, Utley hit .323, 18, 77 and was named to the International League all-star team. Then, a strange thing happened to Chase Utley.

With chronic pain in his hip, David Bell was finally sent to the disabled list for good last August and the Phils recalled Utley and shifted Placido Polanco to third base. Utley, who had hit a grand slam for his first major league hit back in April before being sent to AAA, rejoined the Phillies on August 14th and promptly went 3 for 4 with a double and an RBI. He even turned two double plays and the Philly faithful believed they finally had the starting infield that would lead them to the playoffs. Then a strange thing…well, you get the picture.

Three days later, the Phillies began the "road trip to hell", losing nine of their first ten games and effectively imploding their postseason aspirations. Utley hit only .194 on that road trip and saw his batting average drop 45 points. Nevertheless, he remained the Phillies regular second baseman for the remainder of the season and showed enough promise that Phillies fans expected him to be a major cog when Citizens Bank Park opened.

Philadelphia has been abuzz with baseball talk during the Hot Stove League like no other time since the late 1970's. Ed Wade has been one of the most active GM's in the game, aggressively addressing the clubs pitching shortfalls with trades for Billy Wagner and Eric Milton, and the signing of free agents Tim Worrell and Roberto Hernandez. When Wade announced the signing of free agent utility man Shawn Wooten on December 23rd, it appeared to firm up every available roster spot. So, why Doug Glanville and how does it affect Chase Utley?

The first part of the question can be answered by the Phillies overall lack of team speed. While Jimmy Rollins and Marlon Byrd are the fastest guys on the team, neither of them displayed the skill to really affect a pitcher's concentration the way Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo did for the Marlins last season. The current Phillies bench is projected to include outfielders Ricky Ledee and Jason Michaels, catcher Todd Pratt, and infielders Tomas Perez, Wooten and Utley—none of whom are exactly in the Claudell Washington mold. Team speed is an understandable piece to work on, while Glanville also adds a veteran presence and is a good defensive outfielder.

The answer to the second part of the question follows three possible scenarios for Doug Glanville to make the Phillies roster out of spring training.

Scenario 1 - David Bell is still injured and unable to play, and Glanville plays well enough to earn the open roster spot. This certainly makes some sense, but if Bell is injured Utley stays with the team as well, so let's move on.

Scenario 2 - Bell is healthy, but Glanville plays well enough to allow the Phillies to trade Jason Michaels or Ricky Ledee for the catching prospect that the organization so desperately needs. This scenario probably makes the least sense because Ledee is the only consistent left-handed pinch hitter the Phillies have, and Michaels is not only adored by Phillies fans (who would revolt if he were traded), but is also insurance for Pat Burrell having another head case…I mean, "sub-par"…season.

That leaves Scenario 3 - Bell is healthy, but Glanville plays well enough that Bowa and Wade decide to keep him for his speed and veteran leadership. The odd-man out then becomes Utley. In looking at this scenario, we have to remember a couple of things about Chase Utley. First, he is still a young player having just turned 25 in December. And although it would mean a return to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre for a third season at AAA, we also have to realize that of the 14 players selected ahead of Utley in the 2000 draft, only Tampa Bay's Rocco Baldelli has more major league experience. Most players in that draft have not even sniffed AAA ball yet, including Cardinals second baseman Shaun Boyd, taken two spots ahead of Utley. Finally, Utley really does need more work at AAA. He didn't exactly light major league pitchers up over those 43 games he played last season and he is definitely not a major league defender at this point.

Another half season at AAA working on his throwing mechanics and footwork around the bag could make Utley a cornerstone of the franchise for a long time to come. Even though Larry Bowa is on record saying he is confident that he can get Utley, Polanco and Bell their fair share of at bats in a rotation, doesn't it make more sense for your young stud to play every day and work on developing his defense? He can't do that in the majors.

There are drawbacks to sending Utley back down of course, not the least of which is that it would leave the Phillies with only one left-handed power bat (Ledee) off the bench. But these are issues for Larry Bowa and his staff to work out next month. Could a mediocre outfielder return to the Phillies and temporarily block a hot prospect's path to the majors? When it comes to Chase Utley, stranger things have happened.

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