Joining Joe Mauer and David Wright in the “retiring stars” category: Los Angeles Dodgers infielder and former Philadelphia Phillies anchor Chase Utley. Here’s a look at what he was like as a prospect and how his career stands in context.
Chase Utley was drafted by the Phillies in the first round in 2000, out of UCLA, where he’d hit .382/.448/.689 with 22 homers as a junior. The 15th-overall pick in the draft class, he drew comparisons to Todd Walker and Adam Kennedy due to his line drive hitting approach, clean swing, expected moderate power, and questionable defense at second base. He performed well in his first look against pro pitching, hitting .307/.383/.444 with an 18/23 BB/K in 153 at-bats for Batavia in the New York-Penn League.
His hitting was praised, as expected, but reports on his glovework at second base were mixed-to-negative. Interestingly enough, his defensive statistics were actually quite good at Batavia, but scouts felt that his range was substandard and that he didn’t have soft hands. I rated him as a Grade B prospect entering 2001.
Utley moved up to Clearwater in the High-A Florida State League in 2001, hitting .257/.324/.422 with 16 homers, 19 steals, 37 walks, and 88 strikeouts in 467 at-bats. There was some disappointment here, particularly in the batting average and OBP departments for a guy who was supposed to be a possible batting champ.
Scouting reports indicated that he was trying to pull the ball too much, although his OPS came out better-than-league at +7 percent. He made 17 errors and complaints continued about lack of range, though sources inside the organization were more sanguine and the numbers weren’t that bad. I gave him a Grade B- in the 2002 book, thinking that the bat would come around but not sure what to think about the defense.
Utley looked great in the spring of 2002 and the Phillies jumped him directly to Triple-A Scranton, skipping Double-A. His hitting remained very similar to 2001: .263/.352/.461 with 17 homers, OPS+ 11 percent, with 46 walks and 89 strikeouts in 464 at-bats. That was very good considering the difference in competition.
On the other hand, the Phillies tried to turn him into a third baseman and he struggled at the hot corner, committing 28 errors and having problems with his footwork. His work ethic was praised, but he was not a natural at the position at all. I kept him steady at a Grade B-, though given the improvement in his hitting in the middle of a position switch and competition leap, I should have gone with a straight B.
Returning to Scranton for 2003, Utley moved back to his natural position at second base. He looked pretty decent there, better than he looked before the aborted shift across the diamond. His hitting took a large step forward, with a .323/.390/.517 mark in 431 at-bats, with 18 homers and a 41/75 BB/K. He was promoted to the majors and played 43 games with the Phillies, hitting .239/.322/.373 and exceeding rookie qualifications with 134 at-bats.
If he’d still been a rookie, I would have given him a Grade B in all likelihood entering 2004, projecting him as a solid regular. He was 24 by this point and a league repeater, so I don’t think I would have gone with a B+.
Utley hit .266/.308/.468 in 94 games with the Phillies in 2004, then exploded in 2005 with a .291/.376/.540 mark, 28 homers in 147 games at age 26, with an outstanding 7.5 WAR. He was a devastatingly effective player in the 2006-2009 window.
Remember how his defense was panned in the minors? It’s turned out to be very good/excellent, at least according to WAR.
Utley eventually faded of course as age took its toll once he got into his early 30s. He was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2015 to play out the string.
Overall Utley played 16 years in the majors, hitting .275/.358/.465 in 7863 plate appearances, OPS+117, wRC+ 118, with an excellent fWAR of 63.2, boosted by strong defense at his peak. He made six All Star teams and won four Silver Slugger awards.
He ranks very highly in historical terms, his fWAR value of 63.2 putting him in the same neighborhood with second basemen like Craig Biggio (65.8), Roberto Alomar (63.6), 19th-century star Bid McPhee (62.7), Willie Randolph (62), and Ryne Sandberg (60.9). All but Randolph are in the Hall of Fame.
As a prospect, Utley was outstanding in college and seen as a future long-term regular, projecting to provide a high batting average with moderate power and (hopefully) adequate glovework.
Utley did OK in the minors, decent enough in context, but he really didn’t combine batting average/OBP and power until his second run in Triple-A, and it took him a full season in the majors before he looked truly comfortable. Once he did, he fully lived up to his offensive potential with a better glove than expected.