Philadelphia Phillies: Was it a mistake to trade Chase Utley?

Jun 22, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Dodgers second baseman Chase Utley (26) scores on a wild pitch against the Washington Nationals for his 1,000th career run in the first inning at Dodger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 22, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Dodgers second baseman Chase Utley (26) scores on a wild pitch against the Washington Nationals for his 1,000th career run in the first inning at Dodger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports /

Former Philadelphia Phillies second baseman Chase Utley had a six-hit night last week. Seeing that kind of success made me wonder if it was a mistake for the Phillies to trade him.

A year ago, Utley was in the midst of a tough season. His batting average was a shockingly low .179, and he had been placed on the disabled list. Considering that Utley suffered also through a poor second half of 2014, it appeared that he might be nearing the end of his once-great career.

Complicating matters, while Utley was out, his replacement, Cesar Hernandez, had played well. This prompted then-general manager Ruben Amaro to claim that Hernandez was the team’s best second baseman, and said that Utley would not get his starting job back upon his return.

When Utley returned in early August, he played well for a two-week stretch. Thanks in part to that hot streak, the Philadelphia Phillies were able to trade him to the Los Angeles Dodgers for minor league pitcher John Richy and second baseman/outfielder Darnell Sweeney.

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One year later, the trade is looking pretty good from the Dodgers’ perspective. Utley didn’t play especially great after coming over in 2015 (.202 batting average), but he helped the Dodgers make the playoffs, and made some headlines once they were there.

Since his 2016 option did not vest, Utley became a free agent, and the Dodgers re-signed him for one year at a cost of $7 million. Despite the aforementioned six-hit night, he is having a good – not great – season, with a .736 OPS and 1.5 bWAR. In other words, he’s been a valuable player, but far from the star he was ten years ago.

As for the Philadelphia Phillies, it feels like they came out on the losing end of this exchange. Neither of the players they received in the trade have made much noise. Richy was considered a non-prospect at the time of the trade, and he hasn’t done much to change that opinion. Sweeney got some time with the major league club at the end of 2015 and appeared overmatched. His stats in Triple-A this season are not impressive either.

Then again, it wasn’t realistic to think they were going to get much. As mentioned, Utley had been slumping for an entire year, and there were many questions about his health. Getting a marginal prospect like Sweeney was probably the best they could have hoped for.

As for Utley’s replacement, he hasn’t thrived since being handed the full-time job. Hernandez cooled down considerably in the second half of 2015, and hasn’t been much better in 2016. His .706 OPS isn’t awful, but he has almost no power, plays a below average second base, and has made several glaring mental errors.

Philadelphia Phillies
Jun 29, 2016; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Philadelphia Phillies second baseman Cesar Hernandez against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports /

While he’s still young, time is running out for Hernandez. He’s approaching 1000 career at bats, and J.P. Crawford is getting closer to the major leagues. At this time next year, most people expect Freddy Galvis to be the Philadelphia Phillies’ starting second baseman.

So would the Phillies have been better off keeping Utley? They could have either picked up a club option for 2016 (Probably for about $9 million) or re-signed him as a free agent. (It seems likely that he would have stayed given the opportunity.)

Despite all of those factors, I still believe the Philadelphia Phillies made the right move in trading him. Utley may still be a productive player, but that’s not really the point. Despite the team being much less awful than expected in 2016, they are still going nowhere this season, and probably won’t sniff the playoffs in 2017 either.

Even though there were plenty of indications that Hernandez was not going to be a viable major league starter – and there have been plenty more since – the team still needed to find out. These rebuilding seasons should be about finding out which of the young players can be a building block moving forward. If Chase Utley was still around, I suspect he would have found himself back in the regular lineup more often than not – because if not, why bother keeping him? And the team might have never found out what they had in Hernandez.

I thought the team might have kept him around for the sake of the fans. Rebuilding seasons can be tough on the fan base, and the losing might have been easier to endure with a beloved franchise icon around. I also thought that there might be a mini-revolt if he was ever traded.

As it turned out, the opposite was true. One of the saddest things about the 2015 season was seeing Utley struggle. Most fans didn’t like watching a diminished Utley play out his last days, as it proved a sad reminder of what used to be. In addition, everyone seemed happy that he got another chance to play in the playoffs.

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In the end, while they didn’t get much return for him, and he’s having a better season than his replacement, it’s hard to declare the trade a mistake. Both the Philadelphia Phillies and Utley have moved on, and I think everyone is better off for it.