PHOENIX — The most beloved player in the Dodgers locker room will return for at least one more season, and possibly longer. Chase Utley has officially rejoined the team on a two-year contract.
The deal is worth $2 million. Utley will receive $1 million each in 2018 and 2019.
The veteran second baseman signed his third straight free agent contract with the Dodgers, who acquired him via trade from the Phillies in August 2015. Utley hit .236/.324/.405 in 127 games for Los Angeles last season. That included a 5-for-51 (.098) slump to open the season, followed by Utley hitting .264/.347/.461 the remainder of the year.
Utley struggled in the postseason, going 0-for-15 with five strikeouts, also walking twice and getting hit by two pitches.
The 39-year-old had a clear preference of where he’d like to play to start his 16th major league season.
“Early on I let the Dodgers know that I would like to continue to play, and staying in LA would be my first choice,” Utley said. “Probably not the best negotiation strategy, but at this point in my career I felt I needed to be honest and truthful with them.”
The Dodgers used Utley judiciously in 2017, limiting the left-handed batter to just 28 plate appearances against southpaws, against whom he was 4-for-24 (.167) with two walks and two HBP. Utley started exactly half of the Dodgers’ games last year — 68 starts at second base, 10 at first base and three games as the designated hitter.
Manager Dave Roberts said Utley would have a similar role in 2018, though noted that Logan Forsythe would get the bulk of the at-bats at second base.
”Whether it be starting in certain spots or coming off the bench, whatever the role I know Chase has been there,” Roberts said. “Whatever is needed of him, I know he supports.
“To have Chase on your roster makes your team better.”
His return seemed in the cards at several points this offseason when Utley went on a a trip to Dubai as an ambassador of the Dodgers in December even though he was a free agent, and worked out at Dodger Stadium at various points during the winter, starting roughly a week after the World Series.
“We’ve built a good relationship in the short time I’ve been around here,” Utley said. “I put a lot of trust in the guys here in the front office, and I think they did the same with me.”
“We’ve had some conversations,” Dodgers general manager Farhan Zaidi said of Utley at Fan Fest in January. “We know what he means in this clubhouse.”
Things were nearly cemented by Tuesday, the first day of Dodgers pitchers and catchers reporting to Camelback Ranch, with Utley’s locker stocked with gloves and cleats and surrounded by boxes addressed to him.
“I’m assuming we’ll see him at some point,” Clayton Kershaw said.
Utley gives the Dodgers a left-handed complement to Forsythe at second base as well as an option to spell Cody Bellinger at first base on rest days. It also likely rounds out the Dodgers bench, which figures to include one of Utley or Forsythe, one of Yasmani Grandal or Austin Barnes, and perhaps two of Kiké Hernandez, Joc Pederson and Andrew Toles.
It also ensures the Dodgers clubhouse will not be devoid of dad jokes. Or at least dab jokes.
Signing late in the offseason is nothing new for Utley, who waited until Feb. 18 to re-up with the Dodgers last season. That was a stark contrast to the offseason before, when Utley signed for 2016 much earlier, on Dec. 9.
That Utley signed for two years is a little surprising, though it lessens the Dodgers’ competitive balance tax burden by spreading the reported $2 million out. Utley made $2 million in 2017. With Utley’s deal the Dodgers are estimated just below $182 million in CBT payroll, with some assumptions to fill out the rest of the roster. While still below the $197 million threshold for 2018, that number does not yet include earned performance bonuses (think Kenta Maeda here) or in-season additions.
“That’s huge for the team, huge for the clubhouse, and it’s really nice on a personal level too,” said shortstop Corey Seager, whose locker is adjacent to Utley’s.
I know how much Chase Utley loves baseball and I’m happy he’s still a player in the game @Dodgers— Charlie Manuel (@CMBaseball41) February 13, 2018
The return of Utley gives means the Dodgers’ top 11 batters in plate appearances in 2017 will return this season, with that group — including Utley’s 353 PA — accounting for 81.5% of the total.
There are now 63 players in major league camp, including a full 40-man roster.