Before Robinson Cano was Robinson Cano there was only Chase Utley. Utley was the number one second baseman and an elite talent from both a fantasy and reality perspective. He was a solid all around defender that played with reckless abandon but it was his bat that made him great. Throughout his career Utley has made a name for himself in fantasy baseball as a five category contributor from a position on the diamond almost completely devoid of offensive firepower.
From 2005-2009 he received MVP considerations in each season and he earned four All-Star game selections along with four Silver Slugger Awards as the preeminent offensive second baseman in the National League. He was arguably the best offensive second baseman there was in all of baseball during that five year stretch. Period. End of story.
As for this decade? Let's just say things have gone a bit different.
From 2010-2012 Chase Utley has been in big time decline from a power and average perspective. He has also had a hell of a time staying on the field and has only logged 301 games over the last three seasons and all of his numbers are trending in the wrong direction...Or are they?
In 2010 he was plagued by a thumb injury and finished the season playing only 115 games. He hit .275/.387/.445 and added 16 home runs, 65 RBI's, and 13 stolen bases. With the thumb injury a thing of the past fans and fantasy owners looked forward to the return of the Utley of old in 2011. As we all know the chronic knee issues reared their ugly head and only allowed him to play in 103 games in 2011 and his numbers were rough as a result. He limped to a .259/.344/.425 with only 11 home runs, 44 RBI's, and 14 stolen bases. Interestingly despite Utley's degenerative knee condition he has maintained a decent stolen base clip which bodes well to his overall value. Still suffering from chronic knee issues in 2012 Utley managed only 83 games and hit .256/.365/.429 with 11 home runs, 45 RBI's, and 11 stolen bases.
So what's to like about a guy who has played in fewer and fewer games and has yet to produce anything close to useful fantasy numbers? Here are three things that I think make Utley worth rolling the dice on in 2013.
Contract Year: Chase Utley is in his last year of a seven year deal he signed that could very well result in his last season in Philadelphia. This is important because it will basically mean that the kid gloves will be off from both Utley and the Phillies. Utley is going to want to be on the field, not only because he is a competitor, but also because his next contract hangs in the balance. He has millions of dollars on the line and is going to do whatever he can to play through the pain and put up numbers. As for the Phillies they have nothing to lose by letting him play as much as possible. They don't have to resign him and they also don't have any better internal options for 2013. Don't be surprised if Utley plays in the most games since 2009 even if that means limping out to the keystone position.
Peripherals: Despite only logging only 362 plate appearances in 2012 Utley was able to nearly replicate his performance in 2011 in roughly 100 less plate appearances. Which tells me that he is learning to live with his knee condition and make the adjustments necessary to stay productive. He gets on base and actually posted the fifth highest wOBA (weighted on-base average) of all second baseman in 2012. He posted the the third highest OBP (350 PA minimum) in 2012 with a .365 mark which matters because the more he is on base the higher the chances he steals bases and scores runs. Utley also posted a .429 Slugging % which was the 6th highest for all second baseman and higher than that of Neil Walker and Ian Kinsler which means that when he is on the field he still has enough natural power to be productive. All of Utley's 2012 peripherals are pointing to the resurgence of a solid hitter who could very well end the season as a top 10 second baseman if he can just stay on the field, but that is a big IF.
Price Tag: I fully expect Utley to be discounted in 2013 drafts and for good reason as he carries a huge risk to miss time with his chronic knee condition. The biggest questions when it comes to Utley is when does he become worthy of a draft pick and how will his presence on a roster effect overall roster complexion? Personally I think Utley is worth consideration in round 13 or later after the buzziest players are already taken and other owners are looking for help elsewhere. I think if you draft Utley you have to consider nabbing him as a back-up. You cannot rely on him as a starter from the get go because the potential for him to leave you high and dry are tremendous. However if he is able to start the season hot he still has the star power to be a very valuable trade chip and could net a huge return.
Overall the Fake Teams crew has Utley listed as the 8th best second baseman for fantasy purposes in 2013 and that seems fair (a bit high in my opinion) but in a thin position Utley's pedigree and potential it makes sense. The injury risk is scary especially if you are forced to count on him as your every day second baseman because it's not like his knee condition is going to get bette. That being said there are still several positives that he has going for him and he could easily finish within the top 10 at his position in 2013. I just wouldn't want to draft him as such.
TO SUM IT UP: Utley has proven he is capable of great things but he carries significant risk. It wouldn't take much for Utley to turn his peripherals into counting stats for fantasy purposes, but he has to stay on the field. Sneaky source of steals that represents the ideal high risk/high reward draft pick in 2013.
2013 Bold Prediction: .282/.368/.468 with 19 HR, 76 RBI's, 82 R, 14 SB in 516 PA