OAKLAND -- With a day, or at least a good night's sleep removed from the Dodgers' latest deal, here are some thoughts on the Chase Utley trade, a move that was unexpected but still has an excellent chance to become a pretty good upgrade down the stretch.
Keep away from San Francisco
The Dodgers hold a two-game lead over the Giants in the National League West, and both teams are without their starting second baseman until early September. San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy told reporters on Wednesday that Joe Panik is likely out until next month, dealing with lower back inflammation, per Alex Pavlovic of CSN Bay Area.
By multiple reports, the Giants were interested in Utley as well, so at the very least the Dodgers getting Utley keeps him away from their biggest rival.
Old man having a down year
Utley is hitting .217/.284/.333 with five home runs in 73 games, a far cry from his former self. After averaging 7.5 wins above replacement (Baseball-Reference version) at his peak from 2005-10, Utley averaged 3.5 WAR from 2011-14. But this year he's at 0.3 wins below replacement.
But the wild card is that Utley is presumably healthy now. Since his return from the disabled list with knee inflammation, Utley has an eight-game hitting streak, hitting .484/.485/.742 with five doubles and a home run.
"He’s making consistently hard contact. We think he’s gotten over some of the health issues he’s gone through earlier, and when he’s healthy he’s one of the best hitters in the game," Dodgers general manager Farhan Zaidi said on Wednesday. "His quality of at-bats has been near the top of the league. We made it a point to stack our lineup with players who have quality at-bats."
In August, Utley's line drive rate is an absurd 37.9 percent, after 17.4 percent in his first three months.
Are the Dodgers blinded by a hot week or so? Maybe, but it's also reasonable to assume Utley, if healthy, wasn't as bad as he was playing earlier in the season. There's a decent chance the Dodgers catch lightning in a bottle, too.
What about Kendrick?
Howie Kendrick is on the disabled list for the Dodgers with a hamstring strain, but he's not out for the season. Kendrick is expected back, or at least to start a minor league rehab assignment, by the first week of September. Utley will get the bulk of the playing time at second base over the next two to three weeks until Kendrick returns.
Isn't it a little weird that the Dodgers acquired a player for such a short-term fill in?
"Two weeks is a long time in a pennant race," Zaidi said.
Who's on third?
Zaidi mentioned Utley as a backup option at third base and first base once Kendrick returns, but Utley has never played third in 13 years in the majors so I'll believe that when I see it.
Justin Turner is still he primary third baseman, but the Dodgers have been proactive about making sure Turner gets regular rest to keep him fresh and productive. Turner has played four consecutive days just three times all season, and never more than that. After Monday, the Dodgers only have two days off in the final 34 days of the regular season, so there will be some time at third base to spread around.
The key will be if Kike Hernandez sees much time at the hot corner. Zaidi mentioned Hernandez and Alex Guerrero as the main backup third basemen for now. Hernandez played three games in the majors last year at third base, starting once. In the minors he has mixed in 25 games at third since 2011, including 16 games in 2014.
Hernandez takes the brunt of the hit, going from the regular fill-in second baseman back to his utility man role. He will be able to fill in for Utley at second, Jimmy Rollins at shortstop, Joc Pederson in center field or Turner at third, and should still be able to get in ample playing time.
"We always saw him as a guy who would get a lot of at-bats moving around the field. He’ll continue to get time at second base, but he’ll move around the infield and outfield as well," Zaidi said. "We’re going to run our 8 best guys out there every night. The way he’s been hitting, he’s one of those guys."
Where will he hit?
Chase Utley has started 1,026 career games batting third, 69.9 percent of his total starts, and 215 (14.6 percent) batting second. Zaidi said he views Utley as someone who will hit near the top or the middle of the order.
With Turner and Adrian Gonzalez occupying the third and fourth slots in the batting order on both nights, if I were a betting man I'd bet Utley nestles in at the No. 2 spot, right behind his former double play partner Rollins.
Can Utley pitch?
The most common response to this trade that I saw on Twitter was someone asking some form of "Can Chase Utley pitch the eighth inning?" As if this trade eliminates the Dodgers from making any type of bullpen upgrade.
"We have a very strong farm system," Zaidi said. "If there’s a guy who’s available who we think is an upgrade, I don’t think our trade capital is diminished in any real way."
Still an upgrade
Utley literally takes the roster spot of Alberto Callaspo, and it's hard to see that as anything but an improvement. Even when Kendrick gets back and Utley is pushed to more a reserve role, how is it not a good thing having Utley as a primary left-handed pinch hitter on the bench?