BETTER TO BE LUCKY THAN RICH
BETTER TO BE LUCKY THAN RICH
When you have more money than you can possibly spend; when you are as competitive as the day is long; when anything less than a World Series ring will be considered a failure; and when your fiercest and most hated rival has won three championships in the last five years, anything goes.
Even though I have not been at a baseball field in a few weeks (I even took some time to hang with my other kids), in the last few days I have been asked, repeatedly, why did the Dodgers acquire Chase Utley. Before we get into that, let’s do a little background for those of you not so attuned to the vagaries of the trade deadline, the waiver wire, and no-trade clauses:
Chase Utley was – until a few days ago – a second baseman for the Philadelphia Phillies. To some, he is the most beloved baseball player in the franchise’s history (some Richie Ashburn fans might vehemently disagree, but I digress). Chase grew up in Pasadena, attended UCLA, and lives in San Francisco in the off-season. He was drafted by the Phillies in 2000, and until last week, had spent every moment of his professional career with that organization.
Because Chase has been on a major league roster for at least ten years, and with a single team for at least five, he has what are known in the business as “10-and-5 Rights”, which means he cannot be traded without his approval.
Since June of last season, Chase has been on horribly downward spiral. Since my last posting had too many (for some) statistics, I will not bore you with them here other than to say that between June 1, 2014 and June 1, 2015 (more than 600 ABs), Utley hit .205, with below average range at second base, and repeated trips to the disabled list. Utley is signed through this season, with vesting options for the next three, so last Winter there was a drumbeat in Philly to trade him, and fast.
Even though the organization was horrible, and getting worse by the day, the Phillies were afraid to raise a white flag too early (no one really knows why), so they didn’t even try to trade their best asset (Cole Hamels), were essentially stuck with an aging and expensive asset (Jonathan Papelbon), could never find a buyer for their worst asset (Ryan Howard), and didn’t want to lose their best marketing asset (Utley). They promptly started the season 27-52, and the white flag was unfolded.
Ownership brought in a new President of Baseball Operations, who intimated that the General Manager was not long for his job; and suddenly, the shackles were lifted.
The faltering Nationals felt like two closers were better than one, so they agreed to take on Jonathan Papelbon’s attitude, contract, and vesting options.
Cole Hamels agreed to a trade to the Rangers (he had “no-trade” protection in his deal).
With Howard unmovable, that left but one remaining piece. The non-waiver deadline in July came and went, and Utley stayed put. Now the prospect of moving Utley looked incredibly daunting; so much so that Ruben Amaro (the soon to be out of a job GM) was quoted as saying that it was very likely that Utley would be with the team through the end of the year.
A quick aside on the non-waiver deadline and the waiver wire. If, after 4pm EDT on July 31st of a given season, a team wants to trade for a player and have that player on their potential playoff roster, that player must clear “waivers”. Here’s how that works:
- The player is put on waivers by being listed as “available” on the “waiver wire”.
- Any team has 47 business hours to “claim” the player, with the order of priority going to the team with the worst record.
- Teams in the player’s league are given priority over teams in the other league (e.g., for Utley, even though they have a much better record, the Dodgers would have priority over the Red Sox).
- If the player isn’t “claimed”, he can be traded to any team.
- If the player is “claimed”, the player’s current team has three options, which must be done within 48.5 hours: (1) pull the player off waivers (in which event we go back to the status quo as if nothing happened; but if the player is put back on waivers before September, he cannot be pulled back); (2) work out a trade with the claiming team; or (3) allow the player to go to the claiming team (in which event the claiming team gets nothing in return and inherits the player’s contract).
Because of #3, teams need to be careful about making claims, as they could easily be stuck with a bad contract. Just for giggles, and to test the market, tons of players are put on waivers in August, with the team always having the right (and intent) to pull him back.
The Phillies (ironically enough) made a huge mistake a few years back. They put Cliff Lee – and his absurd contact – on waivers and the Dodgers claimed him (which, to any right-thinking organization, was manna from heaven and Christmas morning all rolled into one – the Dodgers were about to take the albatross that is/was Cliff Lee’s undealable deal of their hands/books). But the Phillies aren’t a right-thinking organization, and they actually feared that they might lose Lee, so they quickly pulled him back. Shortly thereafter, the Dodgers took on more than $250M of contracts from the Red Sox. And since that moment, the Phillies have paid Cliff Lee more $60M for a total of 58 starts and 24 wins. He has missed all of 2015 and Philadelphia will be required to pay him $12.5M for the right to tell him not to show up next season.
Now, back to Utley. Once July passed, in order to effectuate a trade, the Phillies would have to (1) waive Utley, (2) hope that he was claimed by a team that he wanted to be traded to, and (3) then try to work out a deal. Oh, and Utley told the Phils that he only wanted to go to the West Coast, only to a National League team, and only to a team where he would get playing time. That winnowed the list to two teams. Amaro knew of what he spoke when he said it was unlikely Utley would be traded. But, as they say, “there’s still a chance”.
Let’s take a look at the two potential suitors, their current second base situation, and how Chase could fit in:
Howie Kendrick: Under contract through this season. The Dodgers like his offense, his defense, his calm demeanor, and his leadership. He is currently on the DL, but expected to be back no later than September 15th (in time for the last push and the playoffs). The Dodgers have stated repeatedly that they would like to bring him back next season.
Kike Hernandez: He is having a breakout year. Hitting over .300 with an OPS of .865. He is a high-energy guy who leads the “Rally Banana” charge and is great for the team both on and off the field. Note: Since the trade deadline, Kike has taken over the starting CF position from once-Rookie of the Year candidate Joc Pederson.
Justin Turner: A more natural third baseman, but has logged some innings at second. Arguably the Dodgers second best overall player this season, hitting .304 with a .893 OPS and 14 HRs.
Alex Guerrero: Two years ago the Dodgers shelled out $28M for this guy, and then realized he can’t play defense. To keep his bat in the lineup, they have tried to hide him at third base and left field.
Jose Peraza: Acquired from the Braves, the Dodgers really like his makeup. He got a two-game look earlier this month and seemed to acquit himself just fine. I am sure he will be back up in September.
Alberto Callaspo: He was only hitting .236, so he was ripe for – and was – designated for assignment.
So, with all of that, and with a bullpen in tatters, what do the Dodgers desperately need? That’s right, an aging second baseman who wants to play every day this season, and wants a chance to play next season.
Joe Panik: Hitting .309 and having a generally great season. However, he is out with a back injury, and the timetable for his return is uncertain.
Ehire Adrianza: 95 career games and 197 career at bats.
Kelby Tomlinson: 17 career games and 44 career at bats.
So, why on Earth would they want/need a veteran second baseman?
Which brings us back to the original conceit. The only real, valid, competitive reason the Dodgers gave up two middling prospects and paid about $2M to acquire Chase Utley was to keep him out of San Francisco’s hands. Can there be any other justification? Just to make Don Mattingly’s job that much more difficult? Because, after the Fair Thee Well tour, the idea of getting Utley and Jimmy Rollins back together was just too juicy to pass up? No, it is plain and simple. It was the same reason a kid takes the last cookie – so his sister can’t have it. They took him so the Giants couldn’t. Prove me wrong!
Okay, I will try. Can you see the one glaring error in my theory? If not, maybe you need to re-read the bullet points above.
The Giants – who are in second place behind the Dodgers – have priority over the Dodgers for a waiver claim. So what is the answer? Maybe you need to re-read the “10-and-5 Rights” described above. The only explanation for the Dodgers getting Utley over the Giants is that Utley would not approve a trade to San Francisco, and he would only approve a trade to the Dodgers. He sort of, kind of, maybe, alluded to that in this interview:
So, despite having all the money in the world, sometimes it just pays to be lucky (and to have great weather, and to be located in someone’s home town, and to employ a player with whom a guy turned double plays for the previous 12 seasons).
With any luck, Utley will get his first look at the playoffs since 2011, and here’s to hoping he can still . . .