Malcolm On Base: Feb. 14, 2018

Welcome to Malcolm On Base, a daily rundown of baseball as I see it. You’ll get (flowery) essays, (mediocre) statistical analysis, (crude) opinion and (oh get on with it) nostalgia.

1. The rarity of Chase Utley in 2018

The Los Angeles Dodgers are projected by PECOTA to win 99 games. With an offense led by Cody Bellinger, Corey Seager, Chris Taylor, Yasiel Puig and Justin Turner, and a pitching staff headlined by Clayton Kershaw, not to mention arms like Rich Hill, Alex Wood and Kenley Jansen, it’s not hard to believe that they’ll reach that mark, possibly eclipsing it like they did last season. Or, to put it bluntly, the Dodgers are good.

The Dodgers should then be thinking about tweaking. Cut some mediocrity here, shave off some replacement-level talent there, and add one more piece to ensure there’s a five-game series with your name on it in October. Okay, maybe they’re already ensured that five-game series. The point is the Dodgers don’t need to waste roster space.

Which is why it may raise eyebrows that the Dodgers are bringing back Chase Utley for 2018. Utley, as you may find, hit just .236/.324/.405 in 2017. It wasn’t atrocious by any stretch, but it was below-average production by a bench player who doesn’t have position flexibility (we’re talking a second baseman and first baseman here). Plus, considering the Dodgers are one of many teams that are likely to prefer 13 pitchers and 12 hitters in 2018, Utley can be considered a statistical waste of a roster spot.

Now it isn’t all a waste. Utley had 57 strikeouts to 32 walks in 353 plate appearances last year. His walk rate was his best since 2012, when he put up a .365 on-base percentage. He was also worth a full win, which is pretty good for a bench player. But that isn’t the reason the Dodgers wanted him back for 2018.

“He’s obviously had a huge impact these two years on our clubhouse,” said General Manager Farhan Zaidi to “We do have young players looking for more at-bats, particularly at second base with a multitude of options, as far as a baseball fit. But if we can get together on a role and what the opportunity looks like, his impact in the clubhouse is something we’d love to have as well.”

There are young players, but the Dodgers don’t have prospects demanding starting time at second base, so bringing back Utley as a bench bat won’t hurt anyone’s development. And if you listen to the Dodgers and read between the lines, you’ll find that they think Utley actually helps everyone’s development. He’s the closest thing there is in baseball to a player-manager.

“He might not be the player he was 10 years ago, but he’s still a very valuable asset to have,” said Clayton Kershaw to the Los Angeles Times. “I don’t think there’s a guy in here who wouldn’t be excited if he was around.”

There aren’t many jobs left in baseball for veterans asked to improve clubhouse relations. Consider that teams aren’t signing free agents at all, and it’s quite amazing that the Dodgers are that excited about bringing Utley back for 2018 and potentially 2019. For comparison sake, the Cubs have Ben Zobrist on board for 2018, but he signed a four-year contract back in 2016; thus his value is still attached to on-field success.

Utley is truly a rarity in baseball, right now and in recent years. Over the next two seasons he’s likely to add another 10-15 home runs and somewhere around 100 hits. He could jeopardize his hall of fame candidacy, though the odds will be in his favor among voters when he’s eligible. But all that doesn’t seem to matter to Utley. He clearly wants to be in the fraternity for as long as possible, if only to win one more championship and secure a legacy of being a respected leader. Luckily, there’s one team out there willing and able to give him that opportunity.

2. Cubs get Darvish on a big bargain

The Cubs finally made the major free agent signing we were anticipating, inking pitcher Yu Darvish to a six-year, $126 million contract with incentives that could push the total windfall to $150 million.

Here’s how the deal breaks down:

  • 2018 – $25 million
  • 2019 – $20 million
  • 2020 – $22 million
  • 2021 – $22 million
  • 2022 – $19 million
  • 2023 – $18 million

There’s an opt-out after 2019, so in essence, he’d have to ask himself whether, at age 33, he can earn more money over four years than at least $81 million. It’s hard to debate the specifics of that part of the contract, so let’s instead focus on the more pressing and immediate two years he’s contractually obligated to fulfill.

When people see the name “Yu Darvish,” they may first think about durability. Much of that is because of the elbow injury that led to Tommy John surgery in 2015. Before the surgery he threw an average of 182 innings, a number that in 2017 would rank 30th in baseball. Darvish returned from his surgery May 28, 2006, and while he suffered another injury in June, he finished the season by making 14 consecutive starts. In those starts he averaged six innings.

Last season Darvish started 31 games, missing just a small slice of August with a back injury, though it was said to only be tightness, and moreover, the Dodgers were probably just finding a good excuse to rest Darvish as the season wound down. Again, he averaged six innings per start. Durability is not really an issue here.

Nor is production. While it’s true Darvish averages six innings per start, meaning he’s just as liable to pitch five innings as he is seven, the Cubs aren’t paying him to be a seven-inning pitcher like, say, Corey Kluber. Matt Swartz earlier in 2017 at FanGraphs wrote about dollar value per WAR and forecasted an $11.1 million estimate per WAR as fair market value in 2018.

As for Darvish, he was worth 2.7 fWAR in 2016 and 3.5 fWAR in 2017. Using the 2018 forecast, that would mean Darvish’s truncated 2016 production was really worth about $29 million on the open market, while his 2017 work was really worth about $38.5 million. By paying him $22.5 million in each of the next two years, the Cubs are likely well underpaying Darvish and would likely recoup at least one, if not two years of future value. That means the Cubs would have four post-opt-out years to make up for two actual years at $37 million. That’s potentially a major steal.

Six years and $126 million for Darvish is extremely beneficial to the Cubs. The opt-out won’t hurt them much, either. Even if Darvish spends a chunk of his Cubs’ tenure on the disabled list, there’s no proof it’ll be a long stay. All in all, the Cubs did well in waiting and getting Darvish for such a bargain.