Thursday, August 13, 2015

Chase Utley's Place in Phillies History

As rumors and speculation begin to grow louder and more credible as each day passes, many fans of Philadelphia Phillies iconic 2nd baseman Chase Utley have had to begin coming to grips with the possibility of his actually leaving the team, and appearing in another MLB uniform.
The hot speculation surrounds the defending World Series champion San Francisco Giants, for a number of reasons. 
First, the Giants have a need. Their offensive depth chart took a pair of significant hits recently with the losses of 2nd baseman Joe Panik and outfielder Nori Aoki to injuries.
Also, those Giants are contending, and would like to shake their "win in even, lose in odd years" label. They currently sit just 3.5 games behind the arch-rival Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West race, and 4.5 behind the Chicago Cubs in the race for the final NL Wildcard playoff spot.
Finally, the Bay area is perfect for the player and his family. Utley's wife Jennifer is a native of San Francisco, and Chase himself is a California native, born and raised in Pasadena. Both are UCLA graduates, and in the off-season the couple makes their home in Sausalito, at the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Also rumored to be at least following Utley's health and performances are both the Cubs and Dodgers, as well as the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Angels.
Although the MLB non-waiver trade deadline passed as of midnight August 1st, players who are put on waivers and pass through that process unclaimed can be traded during the calendar month of August. Utley passed through waivers unclaimed as of Tuesday afternoon.
Another factor in his situation is that Utley is a "10-and-5" player under Major League Baseball's Basic Agreement. This means that as a player with 10 years of MLB service time, 5 of those as consecutive years with the same organization, he has the right to veto any trade.
Contractually, Utley is earning $15 million this season. He is likely owed about $3-4 million for the balance of the remaining 2015 season. In order for a $15 million option to vest automatically for the 2016 season, he would need to reach 500 plate appearances this year.
Currently at just 267 appearances, thanks largely to an injury that knocked him out for two months, he will not reach that mark. Therefore, Utley will basically be a rental for the balance of the regular season and through any possible postseason run.
Whether Chase is actually dealt or not, his days in red pinstripes appear to be winding to a close. The only question now appears to be whether he ends his career as a Phillie, retiring on his own terms, or after a period in at least one other uniform.
Phillies fans have had to deal with goodbyes to longtime franchise stalwarts Jimmy Rollins and Cole Hamels in recent weeks and months. 
Inevitably and likely soon, Ryan Howard and Carlos Ruiz, the other remaining members of what has to be considered the "Core Five" of that 'Glory Era' team of the last decade, will leave as well.
The time will come when we celebrate them all again in reunions, and honor them with places on the franchise' Wall of Fame. 
But before we even reach the point that their actual playing careers end, as they leave the Phillies we can begin to evaluate where these recent greats fit in the larger scheme of the franchise' history.
Over these last few days, I have seen a number of opinions expressed about which player was actually more important, or valuable, or productive during that great run of the prior decade. I have even seem some speculation on where some of these players rank among the all-time Phillies greats.
While he will always receive the benefit of "recency effect" with contemporary fans, where should Chase Utley rank among Phillies players? Among all the Phillies greats throughout club history? Among the best 2nd basemen that have worn the Phils' uniform? Even among his own 'Glory Era' teammates?
Chase Utley has a career .282/.366/.480 slash line, with 232 Home Runs, 914 RBI, 947 Runs scored, 142 career Stolen Bases. 
He is a 6x NL All-Star, 4x NL Silver Slugger at 2nd base, and has finished in the top 15 of NL MVP voting 5x as well.
Currently, Chase sits in 9th place on the Phillies all-time Hits list with 1,615. Were he to finish out this season, he would have a shot at getting the 33 more he would need to pass Sherry Magee for 8th place. 
In the entire 133-season history of the team, only Magee, Chuck KleinLarry BowaDel EnnisEd Delahanty, Richie Ashburn, Mike Schmidt, and Rollins have more hits in a Phillies uniform.
Utley is also 6th all-time in Home Runs behind only Schmidt, Howard, Ennis, Pat Burrell, and Klein. He is 7th in RBI, 6th in Runs, 5th in Doubles, and 8th in Games played. 
In short, Chase Utley is among the Top 10 greatest Phillies of all-time, no matter how you slice it.
Back in early January of this year, I rated Utley at #8 on my listing of the "20 Greatest Phillies of All-Time" at TBOH, just ahead of Harry Kalas and Paul Owens, but behind Howard, Pete Rose, Hamels, Rollins, Ashburn, Steve Carlton, and Schmidt.


I have had the pleasure of watching two Phillies teams win a World Series in my lifetime, and both had tremendous 2nd basemen playing pivotal roles on teams with superstars all around them.
On the 1980 team, it was Manny Trillo, who was the Phils' starter at the Keystone from 1979-82. Trillo was a magnificent defensive player, surely superior to Utley in that regard. 
Trillo won Gold Gloves in three of his four seasons with the Phillies, was the NL Silver Slugger at 2nd base while with the team in both 1980 and '81, and was an NL All-Star with the Phillies in both 1981 and '82.
Trillo was also the MVP of the 1980 National League Championship Series. Anyone who was actually around for that dramatic 5-game battle royale with the Houston Astros, that still ranks as the best NLCS of all-time for many baseball fans, knows just how vital Trillo's contributions were to the Phils' overcoming Houston and reaching their first World Series in 30 years.
Also during my lifetime, I got to watch another outstanding 2nd baseman develop and become a star with the Phillies, as Juan Samuel came up and thrived during the mid-late 1980's.
"Sammy" was an electric offensive player for the Phils from 1983-89, spanning the 'Wheeze Kids' with Rose through the end of Schmidt's career. 
Samuel broke in with that aging 1983 club, and got his only taste of postseason action that year, appearing in four games, including his only postseason at-bat in Game 5 of the World Series vs. Baltimore.
Samuel finished 2nd in the 1984 NL Rookie of the Year voting after leading the league with 19 triples and stealing 72 bases. 
For the rest of the decade he was an offensive dynamo, reaching double-digits in homers every year of his Phillies career. 
In 1987, Samuel hit 27 homers, drove in 100 runs, and scored 113, finishing 13th in NL MVP voting and winning the NL Silver Slugger at 2nd base.
As a kid during the mid-70's, I got to enjoy the emergence of the Phillies as contenders in the early Veteran's Stadium era, thanks largely to a homegrown nucleus of players. 
But that nucleus received an injection of veteran experience necessary for taking the step to contending status with the arrival of 2nd baseman Dave Cash.
Cash arrived for the 1974 season, and remained the Phillies starter for three years through 1976. He was an NL All-Star and finished among the top 15 in NL MVP voting each of those seasons. 
Cash would hit a cumulative .296 over the three seasons, and scored 296 runs, leading the team to the playoffs in 1976 for the first time in over a quarter-century.
The Phillies also received a couple of nice 2nd base seasons just before Utley's arrival from the man he would replace, Placido Polanco
In the 2003-04 seasons, Polanco hit a combined 31 homers and scored 161 runs as the team bridged the Veteran's Stadium and Citizens Bank Park eras. He would return to the team as a 3rd baseman a handful of years later.
Jul 31, 2015; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Phillies Wall of Fame member Samuel before a game against the Atlanta Braves at Citizens Bank Park. (Photo Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports)
On the famed 1993 "Macho Row" team that reached the World Series, the duties at 2nd base were split evenly between the right-handed Mariano Duncan and lefty Mickey Morandini
They were used with incredible effectiveness by manager Jim Fregosi on a team that, more than any in franchise history, mastered the concept of the platoon player.
In the early decades of the team, Hall of Famer Nap Lajoie got his start with the Phillies, playing his first five seasons here before going on to real, lasting fame as a member of the Cleveland Indians. Lajoie was the Phils' starting 2nd baseman from 1898-1900.
In the 1898 season with the Phillies, he led the NL in doubles with 43 and in RBI with 127. 
Lajoie would play in Philadelphia in both 1901 and '02, but as a member of Connie Mack's new American League "Athletics", with whom he would also finish his career in 1915-16 after 13 seasons in Cleveland.
Chase Utley has to be ranked above all of these greats as the single greatest 2nd baseman in the history of the Philadelphia Phillies franchise. He joins both Rollins and Howard as the greatest at their positions in team history.
This means that from 2005-2014, a full decade, Phillies fans of recent vintage got to enjoy the greatest infield that this city has ever seen on a baseball diamond. It is likely something that none of them will ever see again at that level.
That 'Glory Era' is a gift they gave us together, one that will stay with us as long as we live. Howard hit more homers, won an NL MVP and NLCS MVP, and won a Rookie of the Year. Rollins won Gold Gloves, became the all-time franchise Hits leader, and won an NL MVP of his own. Hamels was the MVP of both the 2008 NLCS and World Series.
But the fact of the matter is that none of them win that 2008 World Series without Utley. And the fact of the matter is that Utley doesn't win it without them. To pit them up against one another in "this one was more important than that one", or "this one was better than that one" is simply ridiculous, and is frankly unimportant.
It was a glorious team, with numerous pieces, including a manager in Charlie Manuel who knew how to get the most out of them. They would never have reached the level they did without their collective efforts.
As we say goodbye to Chase Utley, whether that is in the next few hours or days, or in the coming weeks or months, we continue to say goodbye to an entire era, an entire team.
Chase will always be "The Man" from that team, and we will always love him for his "World-(bleepin')-Champions!" emotion, for his hustle, for his smarts. His #26 shirsey and jersey will continue to be worn with pride all over Philly as we all grow old. 
Whatever happens, I think we all wish him, and all of them, the very best in whatever else their careers and lives may hold.

No comments: