Chase Utley, Not Ryan Howard, the Best Target for Orioles

As I wrote last week, the Orioles are reportedly keeping a close eye on the Phillies’ first baseman/future designated hitter Ryan Howard. I do feel confident in saying that Howard would be a potentially beneficial trade target for the Orioles, but I believe there is a player on the Phillies roster that represents an even greater value for the Orioles. That player is Chase Utley.

Utley made his Spring Training debut this past Friday, after dealing with an ankle injury sustained while working out over the winter. The injury bug has bitten Utley hard over the course of his career, but last season, he played 155 games with 147 of those coming at second base. Utley is now 36 years old, with creaky knees, but he does have some tread left on his tires, especially for a team whose only glaring weakness is at second base.

Since the Philles’ teardown began in earnest, there has been one player I have pined after as an Orioles fan, and it has been Utley. It is hard not to fall in love with a player whose jersey is always dirty, whose helmet is often askew as he rounds second digging for third, or whose sweet, sweet left-handed stroke can turn a down and in fastball into a souvenir in a blink of an eye. Thanks to injuries and age, Utley’s power has declined a bit from his peak, but he would still represent a massive upgrade over what the Orioles currently have at second base.

Oriole Park at Camden Yards is tailor made to house Utley’s compact left-handed stroke. I can already picture him jerking inside pitches onto Eutaw Street. Utley would also bring a veteran presence to a clubhouse left reeling by the loss of Nick Markakis. The media loves the decision to let Markakis walk. The players clearly do not. Acquiring a veteran of Utley’s caliber and pedigree would go a long way to placating the rising swell of grumbling in the Orioles’ locker room.

The Orioles will start the season with Jonathan Schoop at second base. Schoop impressed at times during his rookie season, hitting 16 home runs. Schoop made pitchers who tried to sneak a fastball past him pay, but that was about it. He batted only .209 and drew only an abysmal 13 walks over 137 games en route to a .244 OBP. He batted below .200 in May, July and September. Yes, there were high points during Schoop’s rookie season, but Schoop clearly has a great deal of work to do in 2015 if he is to be the Orioles long term option at second base.

Schoop has made efforts to lose weight over the offseason, and reports from Orioles camp are that he is moving well on the bases. Need rather than readiness precipitated Schoop’s rise to the big leagues last season despite having only 70 career games at the Triple-A level. That jump can be made by a frontline prospect, but Schoop does not fit that bill. A full season in Triple-A would have served Schoop and the Orioles well, but the team had no other viable options at second base.

With a full season at the major league level behind him, Schoop may very well develop into a very good second baseman. I do not see him reaching All-Star status, but the Orioles can expect good defense and above average power production for a middle infielder. Or, Schoop’s flaws may prove to be too much to overcome. His approach at the plate needs a serious overhaul, and doing that after being rushed to the majors is a tall order.

So, where does that leave the Orioles with respect to Utley?

The Phillies will trade Cole Hamels and Ryan Howard before the trade deadline on July 31st. Hamels could go soon, especially in light of the Cliff Lee news. While it was reported that the Orioles were keeping an eye on Howard, they are not likely serious players in the Big Piece Sweepstakes. Howard has looked good in Spring Training, but the Orioles just don’t have the need.

Second base remains a position of need for the Orioles. Schoop did not do enough last season to earn the benefit of the doubt. If he was rushed to the Majors, so be it. Now it is time for him to produce. If he cannot do that, the Orioles should turn their sights outward to fill out the only real hole in their lineup. Should it come to that, the Orioles should zero in on Chase Utley.

The only question that really needs to be answered is whether or not the Phillies would actually be willing to part with Utley. Utley holds 10-and-5 rights and can veto a trade to any team. Both sides, Phillies management and Utley himself, have paid lip service to the idea that he would be traded from the only city in which he has played. Unlike Hamels, however, Utley has not expressed any real desire to be traded. He has even gone so far as to say, “I want nothing more than to play for this organization as long as I can.”

If Utley is comfortable playing out the remaining years of his career for a losing team, then any points I have made in this article are moot. There is a case to be made for playing your entire career in one city, and maybe that is what Utley wants. He has earned that right, serving as the heart and soul of the Phillies for the past 12 seasons. Utley, Howard and Carlos Ruiz are the only remaining members of the Phillies 2008 World Series championship squad. Neither Howard or Ruiz have reached the iconic Philadelphia status that Utley has reached. His hard charging style speaks to that blue collar city. I believe one member of the World Series team needs to finish his career as a life-long Phillie. Utley is the best and most loved option of the three. There is probably very little desire to trade him at this point given the fact that he would not bring an organization-changing prospect in return.

While all signs point to Utley being a fit for the Orioles, it all depends on his desires. The Orioles have plenty of mid-level prospects to reach a deal with the Phillies, and the two teams should be able to come to an agreement on a fair split of the remaining years on Utley’s contract. The back end of Utley’s contract is loaded with option years that will continue to vest so long as he plays a full season. These option years could be a sticking point for the Orioles, as they run into Utley’s age 39 season. A buyout could circumvent this potential deal breaker.

It pains me to write the following sentence because Chase Utley so perfectly fits the last remaining hole on a team I believe is on the verge of World Series contention. I do not think Chase Utley is leaving Philadelphia. He has earned the right to finish out his career playing for only one team. As it continues to become more commonplace for veterans to bail on a rebuilding team at the first sign of freedom, there is something to be said for only wearing one hat your entire career. Utley is a hero in Philadelphia, just as Cal Ripken Jr. was in Baltimore. The decision is entirely in his hands, and rightfully so.

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