Phillies second baseman Chase Utley was ice cold at the plate for most of the first three months of the season, hitting .179/.257/.275 with four home runs and 25 RBI in 249 plate appearances before landing on the disabled list on June 24 with inflammation in his right ankle.
Cesar Hernandez took over everyday duties for Utley and caught fire. Since Utley’s last start at second base on June 20, Hernandez is hitting .438/.493/.516 with nine stolen bases in as many opportunities. If there was any doubt about who would get playing time at second base once Utley is healthy enough to return, GM Ruben Amaro put that to bed. Via CSN Philly’s Jim Salisbury, Amaro said that Hernandez is the team’s best second baseman and will continue to serve as the starter at the position when Utley rejoins the team.
There are three concurrent issues:
- Utley has degenerative conditions in both knees. The Phillies promised in the past to limit his playing time and never did, which likely exacerbated the degree to which Utley has been hampered by his knees. They aren’t conditions that improve with rest or rehab; Utley is simply on a timer and his timer may be running out.
- Utley has vesting options for the 2016-18 seasons worth $15 million as long as he accrues 500 plate appearances in the preceding season. He is at 249 currently and the Phillies will have played 91 games when the All-Star break concludes. Even if Utley were to return for the beginning of the second half (he won’t), he would only be on pace to rack up 443 plate appearances. As a result, Utley’s option isn’t likely to vest. Instead, the Phillies will pay him a $2 million buyout and the veteran will either become a free agent or retire.
- Hernandez isn’t nearly as good a hitter as he has shown over the last three weeks. Since June 20, he has a .528 BABIP, which is unsustainable even for a hitter of Barry Bonds’ caliber. Shameless self-promotion: I dug into the numbers at my blog Crashburn Alley. The Phillies are going to have a below-average hitter at second base during the second half almost no matter what, it’s just a matter of who’s going to be worse.