Chase Utley is a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers. That sentence was unthinkable a few years ago, but now it’s a reality.
On Wednesday, the Dodgers completed a trade with the Philadelphia Phillies, packaging prospects Darnell Sweeney and John Richy to acquire Utley. The Pasadena native and UCLA alumnus will finally don the Dodger blue after being drafted by the team in the second round of the 1997 draft.
When Howie Kendrick was placed on the 15-day disabled list on August 10 with a strained left hamstring, the original plan was to give Kiké Hernandez and newly-acquired prospect Jose Peraza a share of the reps at second base. However, the front office had an opportunity to upgrade the roster at a minimal cost and did just that.
Though Utley is statistically in the midst of his worst season ever, he has torn the cover off the ball since being activated from the disabled list on August 7. In 33 plate appearances (eight games), he is slashing .484/.485/.742 with five doubles and a home run.
Earlier in the year, Utley battled through right ankle inflammation, which undoubtedly hindered his offensive production during the first half of the season (.179/.257/.275 in 249 plate appearances). Now that he’s fully healthy again, he looks more like the player that was named to the All-Star team in 2014.
Perhaps most encouraging about Utley’s resurgence is how hard he’s hitting the ball. Since returning from the disabled list, his hard contact rate is 48 percent and his average exit velocity is 94.33 MPH, both numbers being well above Major League average.
Utley will slot in as the primary starting baseman until Kendrick returns, but could see some time at first base and third base as well. It also helps that the Dodgers play six more games in American League ballparks this season, enabling him to see some time as a designated hitter.
Over the course of 13 seasons, Utley has enjoyed playing in Chavez Ravine, too:
Utley in 167 career regular-season plate appearances at Dodger Stadium: .320/.389/.613, eight HRs.
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) August 20, 2015
While Hernandez has done a tremendous job filling in at second base (.375/.444/.607 in his last 63 plate appearances), his true value is his versatility that allows him to start at almost any position on a given night. When Jimmy Rollins needs a breather, he can start in place for him at shortstop; when Joc Pederson needs a day off against a tough left-handed pitcher, he can fill in for him in center field.
On days when Utley doesn’t start, especially when Kendrick returns, his bat off the bench is a massive upgrade over the likes of Alberto Callaspo and Alex Guerrero. In fact, the former was designated for assignment to make room for Utley on the roster. During his tenure with the Dodgers, Callaspo slashed a rather weak .260/.336/.301 in 138 plate appearances, though he provided solid defense as a late-inning defensive replacement.
With rosters expanding in less than two weeks, the Dodgers will have the luxury of carrying both Utley and Kendrick without having to make a corresponding move. This allows Kendrick to slowly be eased back into games with little-to-no pressure, not to mention he will have ample time to completely heal from his tricky hamstring injury.
And should the Dodgers make the playoffs for the third consecutive season, there are few players who have had more success in October than Utley has. In 46 career postseason games, he owns a .902 OPS with ten home runs and 18 extra-base hits. Whether he starts in games or is utilized as a pinch-hitter, having a player with that kind of success should only benefit the team.
If Utley proves that his awful first half of the season was just a blip on the radar, the Dodgers could ultimately decide to exercise his $15 million option for next season and include him on the 2016 roster. But for the meantime, let’s just embrace the fact that Utley now plays for the Dodgers. It was long overdue, but worth the wait.