Chase Utley, free agent?

Just a few years ago, Chase Utley was the MLB’s premier second baseman, and was one of (if not the) best players in baseball. He compiled a stunning 39.2 fWAR, second only to Albert Pujols’ 43.1, from 2005-2009, despite playing at least half of 2008 with a torn labrum in his hip. He made his home in the heart of the Phillies’ juggernaut offense, one lineup spot ahead of Ryan Howard, and led the team to a World Series title in 2008. Since then, well-documented (well, more like well-publicized) chronic knee issues have put a damper on a once-Hall of Fame-bound career, forcing him to miss significant time at the start of both the 2011 and 2012 seasons.

Utley will earn just over $15 million in both 2012 and 2013, and is then scheduled to become a free agent for the first time his career. So what’s the realistic, market value price for him? The Phillies surely want him back, as he’s a strong lead-by-example presence in their clubhouse. However, they probably won’t want to pay him as much money per year as they are now; plus, their monstrous, already-terribly inefficient payroll wouldn’t be able to handle another $50+ million commitment, especially to a player whose health outlook becomes increasingly nebulous by the day.

Thus, the Phillies are faced with an interesting dilemma: should they let Utley, former cornerstone of a World Series-winning team, just walk away? Would other teams show enough interest in him and his balky knees to make his departure from Philadelphia a possibility? It’s tough to say, but we do know that Phillies GM Ruben Amaro desires to keep the foundations of that 2008 team intact, clearly illustrated by his overpayments to aging homegrown talents Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins in the past 3 years.

Gut feeling says that Utley will still don red and white pinstripes in 2014 and beyond. But, remember, he’s got his ring; who’s to say he doesn’t want to return home to California and play for his hometown Dodgers before he hangs up his cleats for good? Would the Dodgers, the team that originally drafted him out of high school, be interested? How much longer will it be until his knees give out, plunging him into retirement?

Which begs the question, more important than wondering where he’ll play in 2014: is he even a second baseman anymore? Will his knees spark a move to a less physically demanding position? More to come on this later.

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