We all know how important Chase Utley is to the Phillies. His consistent clutch performance, stifling defense and hard-nosed approach to the game all contribute to him being one of the most popular guys on the team. When he was named the team MVP by the local Baseball Writers Association of America one writer noted, "Utley has everything the veterans lacked: ability, clutch performance, heart and leadership." He was again honored this past week with a spot on Team USA for the World Baseball Classic. Recently, his hometown Long Beach Press Telegram profiled the Phillies star and followed his growth from the Long Beach Little League to UCLA and eventually to Philadelphia. There’s no question that this guy has what it takes to be a superstar.
He has the right mentality, that’s for sure. When faced with the tough decision of either signing with the Dodgers straight out of high school or going to college made the right move. "I could go to UCLA and mature and get a degree. In high school, my goal was to get to the major leagues but I never felt I had to do it right away." For all those Moneyball fans out there, recall that a college education is one of the most valued assets of any young player.
But now that he’s entering his first season of starting everyday, how will Chase handle the pressure? Statistically, the Baseball Reference PECOTA projections give him only a 40% chance of improving his runs per game ratio. The rest of their predictions don’t look good either, even predicting a decrease in plate appearances – which I found a bit odd. In 2005, he tallied just over 7 wins above a replacement player, in 2006 he’s expected to drop to 5.
So should we trust the predictions? I say no. Barring injury, Utley’s production should at least remain comparable to last season, if not improve. Chase strikes me as the kind of guy that will only get better with experience. He himself said, "There’s always room for improvement. I always want to get better. I don’t see goals other than that. Learn and get better." That’s precisely the attitude that should catapult him into a leadership role on the team. Hopefully he can encourage players to regularly stick around the clubhouse and discuss the ins-and-outs of the games, much like the fun-loving 1993 team did.
Still, I think one of the more tangible statistics can best speak to what Utley means to the current Phillies squad; that is, Marginal Value Above Replacement Player which stands at a healthy $9,075,000. Next season Chase, still on his rookie contract, is slated to make just $345,000. If Utley continues to defy predictions, it will be interesting to see if Pat Gillick can resist giving him a long-term deal before the end of the season.