Is big extension for Utley the right move for Phillies?

Chase Utley deserves a reward, but a three-year deal is risky.On the other hand, who would replace him?
Chase Utley deserves a reward, but a three-year deal is risky.On the other hand, who would replace him? (YONG KIM / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 27, 2013

There are two ways to look at the Phillies' extending Chase Utley's contract for another three years, which appears more likely all the time.

From a feel-good, fan-centric perspective, it's hard to argue. Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins have gotten their enormo-deals. As long as the organization is handing out lifetime achievement awards to the heroes of 2008, the second baseman deserves his.

From the clear-eyed, unsentimental perspective, a three-year commitment to Utley appears awfully risky. Those deals for Howard and Rollins aren't exactly looking like wise investments right now. A precipitous drop in production brought on by a series of injuries makes Howard's contract (which has something like 50 years and $200 bazillion remaining) a 500-pound albatross. Rollins, who is about halfway through the three-year deal he signed after the 2011 season, has been thoroughly mediocre this season.

It is not hard to imagine Utley missing big chunks of the 2015 and 2016 seasons while the Phillies are hamstrung by his salary from adding an adequate replacement.

The last time the Phillies had a World Series team, they ignored age and injury history. They gave Lenny Dykstra and Darren Daulton big contracts. Dykstra played a total of 186 games after signing a six-year, $30 million extension. Daulton made more than $15 million in his final three seasons, for which he was able to play 98 games in 1995, five games in 1996, and 84 before being traded to Florida in 1997.

Like Daulton, Utley is rightly considered an invaluable piece of one of the Phillies' best all-time teams. Both players brought a presence and played the game the right way without regard for their physical well-being.

Utley, 34, missed big chunks of the last two seasons because of his chronic knee issues. He has managed the knees this year, playing from the start of spring training - except for a stint on the disabled list with an unrelated oblique muscle strain. And he has been very good, too, especially over the last few weeks. Utley deserves enormous credit for the work he has done to renew his career.

But it's fair to wonder. Is this a respite from the degenerative condition that turned Utley into a part-time player in 2011 and 2012? Has he mastered the situation, or will playing a full season in 2013 lead to more trouble in ensuing years?

There's really no way to know.

Franchises that are able to sustain success, in every sport, know when to part ways with even their most accomplished and popular players. The key to that, however, is finding and acquiring adequate replacements for those players.

The Eagles' decision to let Brian Dawkins walk a few years ago looked much worse because of their failure to find a decent safety to replace him.

If the Phillies had a trove of young talent developing in the minor leagues, they could make hard decisions with players such as Utley and Rollins. But they don't. By falling short in the draft and in player development, the Phillies have limited their options in situations like this.

There is no one in the system who can replace Utley. There are no really attractive options out there in free agency. So the risk of signing Utley to a long-term deal is suddenly offset by the risk of letting him go.

And then there is this. The people making that evaluation, led by general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., are the ones behind the Howard, Rollins, Jonathan Papelbon, and Cole Hamels contracts. Their luck has not been particularly good.

The biggest question, even moreso than whether to re-sign Utley, is: What exactly is the hurry? Reports that Amaro is not listening to possible trade offers and already has started discussions with Utley's agent are puzzling.

Why not find out what young talent you could get from a contender desperate for Utley's production and presence in a pennant race? You can always make him a big offer when he hits free agency. That way, maybe you also have a more attractive team for him to come back to.

That's what you do if your perspective is clear-eyed and unsentimental and you are trying to rebuild your franchise.

If you are handing out golden parachutes for a championship won five years ago, you sign Utley as soon as possible.


Contact Phil Sheridan at psheridan@phillynews.com. Follow on Twitter @Sheridanscribe.

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