January 27, 2017

Utley, Howard still looking for work (and guesses on potential landing spots)

Phillies MLB
070915_Utley-Howard_AP Michael Perez/AP

Chase Utley and Ryan Howard are both still free agents looking for work as the beginning of spring training nears.

Pitchers and catchers will start filing into spring training camps in Florida and Arizona in a little more than two weeks. But, per usual, there are still plenty of free agent players still looking for homes as the calendar flips over into February in the coming week.

Among those names are two of the long-time cogs of the middle of the Phillies lineup: Ryan Howard and Chase Utley.

Who would have thought that Jimmy Rollins (who hasn’t played a major league game since June 8) would have a job before his two former teammates? Rollins signed a minor-league deal with the San Francisco Giants last month.

But the fact that Howard and Utley (and even Shane Victorino, who still hasn’t officially retired) do not have new homes yet is hardly surprising. It was just last year that camps across the Grapefruit and Cactus League had been open for nearly two weeks when a flurry of former Phillies found homes via minor league deals, including Rollins (then with the White Sox).

In the five-day span between Feb. 22 and Feb. 26 of last year Rollins, Victorino (Cubs), Domonic Brown (Blue Jays), and Jeff Francoeur (Braves) locked into minor league deals with invites to major league camps. It’s interesting to note that, among that quartet, only Francoeur stuck with the team and spend the entirety of 2016 in the big leagues.

So we can expect a repeat of last year for the likes of Howard and Utley, right? Eh, it’s surely possible but there are no guarantees.

While the free agent class is admittedly weaker, many players looking for work this winter have had to wait it out and, in most cases, accept less than what their initial expectations were entering the offseason. Just look at Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista.

In the winter of 2015-16, seven different free agent players were awarded contracts in excess of $100 million (Johnny Cueto, Chris Davis, Zack Greinke, Jason Heyward, David Price, Justin Upton, Jordan Zimmermann), with two breaking the $200 million barrier (Price and Greinke). This winter, only one free agent has broken the $100 million mark (Yoenis Cespedes).

And it’s not just guys like Utley and Howard still looking for work. Mike Napoli (who hit 34 home runs for the American League champion Indians), Pedro Alvarez (a younger and more attractive alternative to Howard), and Matt Wieters (a four-time All-Star catcher) are also on the market as we enter the final weekend of January.

Howard’s End

Some people could argue (Howard and his agents, surely) that the former MVP had a bit of a resurgence in 2016. Howard, who turned 37 two months ago, had a .453 slugging percentage (his highest since 2013) and hit 25 home runs (his most since 2011) in just 331 at-bats. And after a dreadful start, Howard hit 17 home runs with an .826 OPS over the season’s final four months (beginning with June 1).

But he simply cannot play against left-handed pitchers. He shouldn’t be anywhere on the field that requires defense. His surgically-repaired legs make him a liability on the basepaths.

Howard at least sounds like he’s accepted some of this, as he was profiled this week in a foxsports.com story. But you do wonder if he’s accepted all of it, and if he’d be open to any job, even if it’s a minor league contract offer from a team that doesn’t train in Florida (where he owns a very nice beachfront home) and also a team with little chance of regular playing time should he win a job out of camp.

“I think I can still go out there and compete, and compete at a high level,” Howard said in the aforementioned foxsports.com story. “I understand that I’m not going to play every single day. With the way that the game has changed, with teams having analytics and all that, I understand all that stuff.”

I’m not convinced. If he can wrap his head around the idea of signing a minor-league deal with a team and having a Matt Stairs-like role with that team with a strong spring, he might be able to find a home.

Random prediction: Howard signs a minor-league contract with the Kansas City Royals in late February.

Chasing a Job

Most people expected Utley to re-sign with the Dodgers at some point this winter. And it was a sound prediction since he was a useful player for his hometown team for the better half of the 2016 season, as well as an important mentor for the young position players on the roster, including Corey Seager and Joc Pederson.

But the Dodgers spent the entire winter looking to upgrade at second base (and specifically with someone that could hit right-handed to balance their lineup). And then last week they did just that, trading one of their top pitching prospects to Tampa Bay in exchange for the underrated Logan Forsythe.

Is it still possible that Utley lands a spot back in L.A., as some security behind the versatile Forsythe (as well as a guy who could give Adrian Gonzalez the occasional day off at first base)?

“You never say never with a guy like Chase, just because of the type of guy he is, and the impact that he has,” Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said in the Los Angeles Times earlier this week. “But it’s one of those things where we probably would have re-signed Chase months ago if our lineup was more balanced.”

Los Angeles’ other team, the Angels, also felt like a smart option since they were looking for second base help and, as an American League team, could offer occasional designated hitter work to an older hitter, too. But the Angels traded for Danny Espinosa in December and then signed versatile left-handed hitting infielder Luis Valbuena this week. So cross them off the list.

Utley should have an easier time finding work that Howard, simply because he’s a better hitter and isn’t as limited on defense or on the bases. But he may have to accept one or the other: playing more for a non-contending team, or having a reserve role with sparse playing time for a contender.

And, before you go there, and while Utley's skill sets (left-handed hitter who can possibly share time with Tommy Joseph) would seem to fit with the Phillies, that's just not happening

Random prediction: Utley signs an incentive-laden one-year deal with the Tampa Bay Rays in mid-February (with the expectation of playing regularly and then getting dealt to a contender before the trade deadline).


Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21