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Utley Considering Third Base?

The hot corner has been a hot topic for Phillies fans all season long. The organization lacks a major-league-ready prospect to take over, and hasn’t decided if they will try and fill the position internally, via trade, or through free agency.

Players like Kevin Frandsen aren’t exactly long-term solutions. Freddy Galvis broke his back earlier in the year and can’t hit: he remains a major question mark from standpoints both health- and performance-related. Placido Polanco has an affordable option for 2013 but proved once again that he can’t stay healthy and can’t hit much when health isn’t an issue. The Phillies could mix and match and eke out some production from these players next season, but it’s clear they are in need of a long-term solution.

Frandsen won’t sustain his current pace next season. Polanco’s hitting is unlikely to improve while his defense probably stands to worsen. Fontenot is gone, and players of that ilk can’t be counted on for much. All told, the pupu platter platoon the Phillies could utilize next season has a high probability of floundering. There may be another option.

Chase Utley approached Ruben Amaro on Wednesday to present an unconventional idea: potentially move Utley to third base next season if the keystone was easier to fill internally or externally. This type of creative problem-solving is exactly what the Phillies need. While it’s unclear if it would work, it is absolutely worth a shot as it could greatly benefit both sides.

The Phils have gotten 1.6 WAR out of their third basemen this year, the 6th-worst tally in the National League. Frandsen accounts for 0.9 WAR, based on his torrid hitting in 112 plate appearances. Polanco fielded very well and has 0.5 WAR to his line. Mike Fontenot produced 0.1 WAR. While 1.6 WAR might seem respectable and close to league average — 2 WAR is generally considered league average on the whole — NL teams have averaged 2.7 WAR from their third basemen so far.

Utley has played in 51 games this season, racked up 219 plate appearances… and has 2 WAR already. He is on pace to play a little under half of a season while doubling the third base production the Phillies have received.

His hitting is an improvement over last year, and he remains a plus-defender. While he derives value from fielding well at a tough position like second base, he probably isn’t a +12 defender anymore. Moving him off of the position is easier to stomach in that context, especially considering that it could result in his staying on the field more often.

This move could benefit the Phillies if they believe that second base is easier to fill than third, and if it means Utley can play 130 games next season instead of 80.

The move theoretically helps Utley because he would play a less taxing position and increase his value as he approaches free agency. His contract expires at the end of next season and very good everyday third baseman sounds a lot better to interested suitors than perpetually injured elite second baseman. There is an obvious assumption here that playing third base would prove less taxing. Positional adjustments peg both positions as equally difficult, though the reasons differ.

At second base, Utley has to range a ton to both sides, especially given the defensive deficiencies of Ryan Howard. At third base, he would play next to another elite defender in Jimmy Rollins, who covers ground well. The difficult aspect of third base involves timing: it’s nicknamed the hot corner because balls are scorched in that direction off the bat.

It’s clearly unknown if Utley could handle the position’s quirks but it stands to reason that it would be better for his body than having to run all over the infield to snag grounders.

The absolute key to this idea is that Utley hasn’t played third base since 2002, and just because someone previously played a position doesn’t mean they can pick it right back up. Pat Burrell played third base in college and he couldn’t even handle left field, the easiest position to play aside from first base, towards the end of his Phillies tenure. Jim Thome used to play third base and he could barely stand up at first base this year without spasming.

Utley ranges very well at second base but his arm isn’t the strongest. If he has trouble every now and then reaching first base from second, it would take a lot of adjustments for a move to third base to work. Ruben Amaro even acknowledged that Utley’s biggest problem in 2002 was his arm: Amaro estimated that Utley made 15-20 errors in his first 40 games at the position. It isn’t impossible for him to succeed at a new position, but we shouldn’t use the whole ‘he-did-it-in-2002’ as evidence to suggest he could handle the position now. For the purposes of a 2012-2013 position swap, that experience is irrelevant.

Aside from whether he could handle the position, and whether it would help him stay on the field, there is the matter that the free agent crop of second baseman is just as anemic as its third base class.

One of the proposed benefits to moving Utley off of second base is that the Phillies would have an easier time filling that position than they would solving third base. It’s a great and creative approach, but these are the potential free agent second basemen next year: Jeff Baker, Jeff Keppinger, Freddy Sanchez and Skip Schumaker. Here are the shortstops who could play second base: Geoff Blum, Luis Rodriguez, Ryan Theriot.

The first two players are platoon specialists. The latter three are not everyday starters, or particularly good players. Sanchez just had season-ending back surgery in July. Schumaker is hitting well after two awful years at the plate, but he’ll be 33 years old next year and doesn’t have an established track record of success.

The Phillies shouldn’t sign any of those guys, which puts them right back at square one. Whether they stick with Utley at second and seek a third baseman, or move him to third and look for a second baseman, they have two options: go with someone internally or trade for someone. Since the internal options are most likely Frandsen and Galvis — Cody Asche is at least 1.5 years away — a trade still seems like the most viable solution.

If that’s truly the case, then Utley going to third base boils down to the team’s assessment of both a) his ability to handle the position and b) if the move can help him stay on the field in 2013 and extend his career beyond next season. Regardless of what happens, the Phillies, and Utley in particular, should be lauded for this creative approach.

Not every interesting idea sticks, but this is the type of out-of-the-box thinking this organization has lacked for years. In all likelihood, Utley plays second base next season, but his idea certainly provides some tasty food for thought.

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