Chase Utley is a five-alarm fire right now

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Since 2010, Phillies second baseman Chase Utley has been anything but dependable. From 2005-09, Utley was by far the best at his position in baseball, but tore a ligament in his thumb in 2010, requiring surgery. He then developed patellar tendinitis in his right knee in 2011, and patellar chondromalacia in his left knee in 2012. Last season, he strained his oblique and had to go on the disabled list for a fourth consecutive season.

No one doubted Chase’s talent, but they did doubt his ability to stay healthy, his ability to avoid the effects of Father Time, and his ability to avoid the toll his previous injuries had taken on him. Through the Phillies’ first 12 games, Utley has put any skepticism to rest. In Sunday afternoon’s game against the Marlins, Utley went 3-for-4, breaking a 3-3 tie in the bottom of the eighth with a no-doubt home run off of lefty reliever Mike Dunn, his third home run of the season. Utley now has a 15-game hitting streak dating back to last season, and has multiple hits in each of his last four games (and in seven out of his 10 games total). His slash line sits at a cool .500/.565/.875 in 46 plate appearances.

The Sabermetrics paint an even better picture. Through this afternoon’s games, Utley leads the league in weighted on-base average at .609, ahead of Freddie Freeman’s .558. Last year’s average for a second baseman in the National League was .311. Utley has drawn walks in 11 percent of his plate appearances and struck out in only four percent of them. His .375 isolated power (which is just slugging percentage minus batting average) shows Chris Davisian power — Davis finished at .348 encapsulating all of last season.

Obviously, Utley is going to come back down to earth at some point but the Phillies, who signed him to a two-year extension with three vesting options through 2018 last August, will take any surplus production they can get from him. Utley, by the way, is also padding his Hall of Fame case.

An Astros executive asked scouts to use cameras, binoculars to steal signs in 2017

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The Athletic reports that an Astros executive asked scouts to spy on opponents’ dugouts in August of 2017, suggesting in an email that they use cameras or binoculars to do so.

The email, ESPN’s Jeff Passan reports, came from Kevin Goldstein, who is currently a special assistant for player personnel but who at the time was the director of pro scouting. In it he wrote:

“One thing in specific we are looking for is picking up signs coming out of the dugout. What we are looking for is how much we can see, how we would log things, if we need cameras/binoculars, etc. So go to game, see what you can (or can’t) do and report back your findings.”

The email came during the same month that the Red Sox were found to have illegally used an Apple Watch to steal signs from the Yankees. The Red Sox were fined as a result, and it led to a clarification from Major League Baseball that sign stealing via electronic or technological means was prohibited. Early in 2019 Major League Baseball further emphasized this rule and stated that teams would receive heavy penalties, including loss of draft picks and/or bonus pool money if they were found to be in violation.

It’s an interesting question whether Goldstein’s request to scouts would fall under the same category as the Apple Watch stuff or other technology-based sign-stealing schemes. On the one hand, the email certainly asked scouts to use cameras and binoculars to get a look at opposing signs. On the other hand, it does not appear that it was part of a sign-relaying scheme or that it was to be used in real time. Rather, it seems aimed at information gathering for later use. The Athletic suggests that using eyes or binoculars would be considered acceptable in 2017 but that cameras would not be. The Athletic spoke to scouts and other front office people who all think that asking scouts to use a camera would “be over the line” or would constitute “cheating.”

Of course, given how vague, until very recently Major League Baseball’s rules have been about this — it’s long been governed by the so-called “unwritten rules” and convention, only recently becoming a matter of official sanction — it’s not at all clear how the league might consider it. It’s certainly part and parcel of an overarching sign-stealing culture in baseball which we are learning has moved far, far past players simply looking on from second base to try to steal signs, which has always been considered a simple matter of gamesmanship. Now, it appears, it is organizationally-driven, with baseball operations, scouting and audio-visual people being involved. The view on all of this has changed given how sophisticated and wide-ranging an operation modern sign-stealing appears to be. Major League Baseball was particularly concerned, at the time the Red Sox were punished for the Apple Watch stuff, that it involved management and front office personnel.

Regardless of how that all fits together, Goldstein’s email generated considerable angst among Astros scouts, many of whom, The Athletic and ESPN report, commented in real time via email and the Astros scout’s Slack channel, that they considered it to be an unreasonable request that would risk their reputations as scouts. Some voiced concern to management. Today that email has new life, emerging as it does in the wake of last week’s revelations about the Astros’ sign-stealing schemes.

This is quickly becoming the biggest story of the offseason.