MLB Arizona Diamondbacks

A Way Too Early Look at the 2014 Philadelphia Phillies: Who Could Replace Utley?

It’s difficult to imagine life as a Philadelphia Phillies fan without Chase Utley. Since joining the Phillies nearly a decade ago, Utley has established himself as the best second baseman – and one of the best players – in the game, making five straight All-Star teams and registering more Wins Above Replacement (44.7) from 2005 through 2010 than anyone else in the National League.

Utley has missed extensive time in each of the past two seasons though, as he’s rehabbing from patella tendinitis, first in one knee and then in both. His seven-year deal he signed prior to the 2007 season expires after 2013, and given that he’s really starting to show his age, that may be his last breath with the Phillies.

If the Phillies do decide to move on from Utley, it’s going to be difficult to find a replacement for such a talented all-around player. Even this year at the age of 33, Utley has an .825 OPS and eight home runs in 41 games, a figure that would translate to over 30 homers for the course of a full season. And he’s still phenomenal on the base paths and with the glove, although he can’t really be counted on to play regularly anymore given his ongoing knee problems.

Maybe the Phillies will sign him to a one or two or three year deal after 2013. Then again, it’s more likely that they don’t considering Utley’s age and injury history. Knowing Utley, I think there’s a chance he may even quietly retire. After all, he’s accomplished everything he’s set out to do – he’s been the face of a franchise, helped deliver a World Series to Philly, and he’s been the best player on the team for the prime of his career. He was well on his way to the Hall of Fame before he got hurt, but what can you do about that? And if that’s the case and Utley does hang it up, here are 10 guys that could step in to fill the void.

Martin Prado:

Martin Prado is a free agent after next season, and as I mentioned in a recent article, he’s a potential candidate to play left field for the Phillies in ’13. 

Prado is a .294 career hitter who has topped .300 three of the past four full seasons. He can play pretty much anywhere on the field, and he would be a great fill-in if the Phillies do re-sign Utley. He could play second base to spell Utley, left field, right field, third base, and even shortstop if needed. And if they get him after ’13, they won’t have to trade for him because he will be a free agent.

Cesar Hernandez:

Cesar Hernandez has quietly crept up the minor league system, and he’s now one step shy of the major leagues. At just 22, Hernandez is a solid prospect. He hit .304 with 11 triples and 16 steals for the Reading Phillies earlier this season, and now he’s getting his feet wet in Triple-A.

If Hernandez plays well in Triple-A next year and gets a call up to the major leagues in September, he might have a chance to show he can be the team’s starting second baseman in 2014.

Freddy Galvis:

This is the odds-on favorite, especially since Jimmy Rollins is signed through the 2014 season with another option for 2015.

Freddy Galvis played well as a rookie this year before his season fell apart – first the injury, then the steroid suspension. Galvis is a terrific gloveman though and he will get better on offense with time. He will likely fill in at second base and shortstop in ’13 with Utley and Rollins both on the team, and he should be ready to take over full-time at second base by 2014.

Michael Young:

Michael Young is a .290 career hitter in even years and .314 in odd years. So that’s the logical explanation for why Young is hitting way below the norm this year. Next year is his contract year and he will play well enough that he will get a decent deal starting in 2014.

Or he may just be hitting only .270 because he’s now 35 ½ years old and on the decline of his career. By ’14, I don’t know how much Young will have left. He’s a super utility man like Prado but he’s older and not as good defensively. He’s a subpar option for ’14.

Ben Zobrist:

I’ve long been a fan of Ben Zobrist. Since 2009, he rates as the fourth-best overall player in baseball per FanGraphs, registering 23.3 WAR.

Zobrist is just a .266 hitter during that span, but he has a good walk rate (13.8 percent) and that’s given him a .368 on-base percentage. Zobrist has averaged 18 home runs and 18 stolen bases per year since ’09, and he’s a terrific defender wherever he wants to play.

Zobrist can play literally any position on the field except pitcher and catcher, although second base is the position he’s played more than any other in the major leagues. He’s signed to a four-year deal through 2013 with team options for 2014 and 2015 at $7 million and $7.5 million, and the Tampa Bay Rays would be wise to utilize both options. But say for some reason they don’t – the Phillies better be one of the first teams in line to sign Zobrist to a multi-year deal.

Omar Infante:

Keeping the super utility thing alive, Omar Infante is another solid option. He is signed to a two-year deal through 2013 and the Phillies could get him for ’14 at a multi-year deal.

Infante isn’t a power hitter but he’s a good contact hitter – he hit just .276 last year with the Florida Marlins, but he batted .287 with the Marlins in the first half of the season and he’s hitting .296 with the Detroit Tigers so far. Infante is a solid glove man although getting him might be like getting Placido Polanco again – an aging veteran who hits .265 with little power.

Skip Schumaker:

Skip Schumaker is a great option at a two-year, $3 million deal, and he’s going to be a free agent again after 2013.

Schumaker is hitting .314/.389/.423 with a 122 adjusted OPS that makes him one of the better utility infielders in baseball. Schumaker isn’t particularly fast but he’s a .292 career hitter and an average defender so he’s not going to make or break the Phillies either way.

Aaron Hill:

Aaron Hill is on a two-year, $13 million deal and he’s going to be just 32 when he starts the 2014 season. Hill isn’t quite the hitter that hit 36 home runs in 2009 but he’s also significantly better than the one that hit just .246 with a .655 OPS last year.

Hill is hitting .292 with 14 bombs in 2012, and his .823 OPS is 75 points higher than his career average. He’s a pretty solid second baseman, a good hitter and an above average defender, and I would take him for what he will get paid.

Cody Asche:

This is highly unlikely factoring in all the scenarios. Cody Asche is a third baseman in the minor league system right now, although he has played second base before and the Phillies might want to try him out there.

Asche batted .349 with 10 stolen bases in 62 games for the high-A Clearwater Threshers, and he’s now in Double-A. Asche is hitting just .273 with the Reading Phillies but his .772 OPS isn’t too bad, and he’s only 22 years old. Give him time and maybe he will amount to something.

Kelly Johnson:

Kelly Johnson isn’t the long-term answer for any team, but he’s the kind of guy that can play well on a one or two year deal.

He has maxed out at 26 home runs before and he puts up around a dozen steals per season. Johnson is hitting just .230 this year but his 14 home runs and 10 stolen bases aren’t too bad.

My Thoughts:

I would love for this to still be Utley. He would have to play well in 2013 and prove that he’s still good enough to start. But I just can’t imagine life without him as a Phillie.

If it’s not Utley though, it’s got to be Galvis or Hernandez, but I would put my money on Galvis. He’s played the position before at the major league level and he’s not going anywhere.