David Murphy: Third opinion on Chase Utley's possible switch

Chase Utley fields a ground ball during Wednesday night's loss, hours after practicing at third base.
Chase Utley fields a ground ball during Wednesday night's loss, hours after practicing at third base. (YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: August 31, 2012

THERE IS no question that Chase Utley taking ground balls at third base constitutes news, especially when you consider that Wednesday night's game between the Mets and Phillies featured two teams jockeying for position in next June's draft.

But even if the veteran second baseman transforms himself into a modern-day Brooks Robinson, the impact that it will have on the organization's future is, at best, uncertain. The noncommittal attitude expressed by Utley and general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. when they discussed the potential switch on Wednesday was not a case of two tight-lipped professionals downplaying reality.

As Amaro said, "There's no real downside."

There might not be much of an upside, either, at least not when it comes to bolstering a lineup that entered the day ranked 11th in the National League in runs-per-game (4.15). Amaro said that a successful transition to third base by Utley could enable the Phillies to play rookie infielder Freddy Galvis at second, a position where he thrived defensively before a fractured bone in his back and a suspension for performance-enhancing drugs combined to end his season. But they cannot ignore the questions that remain about Galvis' ability to handle major league pitching with the consistency required of an everyday player. In 58 games, the switch-hitter batted just .226 with a .254 on-base percentage. In other words, he made an out in 75 of every 100 plate appearances.

That's not to say that Galvis did not show some positive signs. His 19 extra-base hits in 190 at-bats were more than anybody was hoping for when he entered the season as the starter at second base. He provided some big hits at opportune times. But even a closer look at that "clutch" factor suggests that some of us might be erring less on the side of reality and more on the side of what we want to believe about this fresh-faced, 22-year-old defensive wunderkind. For example, Galvis hit just .236/.263/.364 with runners in scoring position. Most glaring, though, was his performance from the left side of the plate, where he posted a line of .208/.231/.331. That, of course, is the side of the plate where he will be batting against the majority of pitchers. Of the 17 National League second basemen who have at least 150 plate appearances against righthanded pitching, only one has an OBP below .300.

You can shrug them off, but numbers are numbers, and these say that if the Phillies enter 2013 with Galvis at second base, they will do so with one of the least-proven hitters at that position in the National League. As smooth a defensive player as Galvis is, the fact remains that the ugly snowball that is the 2012 season began with an offense that finished April averaging just 3.3 runs per game. In the Phillies' first 43 games, they suffered four losses in which they held an opponent under three runs. In those four losses, Galvis went a combined 2-for-15 with three total bases.

Heading into Wednesday, four losses was the difference between a 65-64 record and a spot on the fringe of the playoff race and a 61-68 record that left them all but disqualified. Do not mistake that for blaming Galvis for the Phillies' woes. But unlike Jimmy Rollins, who also struggled during that early portion of the season when the rotation was thriving, Galvis is not signed to a contract that will pay him $11 million in each of the next two seasons. Which means the Phillies have some flexibility when it comes to addressing the position he plays. Which, at this point, is either second base or third base.

Last offseason, the Phillies had the flexibility to address leftfield, instead choosing to rely on John Mayberry Jr. and a combination of veteran role players. That decision proved costly. The counter argument is that the Phillies were also missing their No. 3 and No. 4 hitters. And if Utley and Ryan Howard are healthy and productive at the start of next season, it could allow the team to fill one of its lineup spots with an unproven hitter. But that also would require them to fill two of their outfield spots with proven hitters, roles previously filled by Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino. With Domonic Brown filling the role that was essentially occupied by Mayberry, the lineup would have the potential to resemble one befitting a championship contender.

The hard truth is that the Phillies might not have any other choice. This year's crop of free agents is devoid of sure-fire offensive threats at second or third. Still, the Phillies cannot afford to limit their options, which is why Utley's early work at third base makes sense.

"I think if I'm able to play over there, it could create some more flexibility as far as the organization is concerned," Utley said. "It may not. It's just something I wanted to give a try."

If Utley can show he has the arm strength and reflexes to provide adequate defense, the move might help avoid the contact and pivots a second baseman must endure, thereby keeping his knees healthier. Galvis has never played third base, but you have to think a transition there would be easier for him than it would be for Utley, even though Utley once played the position. The Phillies' lineup is the same either way. If Utley playing third affords the organization more flexibility and saves some mileage on his joints, it is worth pursuing.

As Amaro said, it can't hurt. How much it can help is far less certain.


Contact Dave Murphy at dmurphy@phillynews.com. Follow him on Twitter @HighCheese. For Phillies coverage and opinion, read his blog at philly.com/HighCheese.

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