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The Chase Utley-Third Base Experiment

This has been a very disappointing season for the Philadelphia Phillies. After posting a poor 37-50 record prior to the all-star break, the team has turned things around to the tune of a 39-24 mark. However, the turnaround has mostly come too late, as they still have to make up four games with 12 left to play just to tie the St. Louis Cardinals for the National League’s second wild card berth. Despite barely even hovering around the .500 mark until recently, the non-contention has enabled the team to evaluate potential pieces of next year’s team at the major league level.

The Phillies installed Domonic Brown in right field on an everyday basis and shifted John Mayberry to center field after the trades of Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino. They took a cautious approach with Vance Worley, shut him down when his elbow proved too bothersome, and replaced him with youngster Tyler Cloyd. The improbably hot-hitting Kevin Frandsen has handled the majority of playing time down at the hot corner in Placido Polanco’s absense. The Phillies have also called upon a slew of relief pitchers, either homegrown or previously acquired via trade, in the hopes that they don’t have to spend any more money in that particular area.

But the Phillies also have another player they plan on evaluating for next season, and he is already a star at the major league level. Chase Utley recently approached the front office with the idea of playing third base next season. It wasn’t a demand, or even a detailed conversation fleshed out logistically with the front office and managerial staff, but Utley suggested that, if it helps the team given the poor free agent class at the position, he could give it a shot. Ruben Amaro, Jr., added that Utley could even see time at the position this season if the Phillies are officially eliminated from the playoff race over the next two weeks.

The Phillies could definitely use some help at third base, but shifting Utley isn’t a cut-and-dried solution, and this positional swap isn’t necessarily going to solve the team’s issues.

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Is Rasmus Worth An Extension?

The Blue Jays acquisition of Colby Rasmus last season was considered a steal by many. Though the team surrendered five players in companion deals with the White Sox and Cardinals, Alex Anthopolous brought in a young, cost-controlled centerfielder for three relievers, a starter that was never really meant for them in the first place, and Mark Teahen’s contract. Rasmus was worth the risk as a change-of-scenery candidate, as he had proven himself productive in spite of well-publicized spats with his manager.

However, since joining the Jays last summer, Rasmus has failed to live up to the production standards he set with the Cardinals, and he has realistically been one of the least productive players in that span. Over the last two calendar years, Rasmus has the 13th-lowest wOBA, 14th-lowest wRC+, and 18th-lowest WAR out of the 115 qualified players.

Which is why the Blue Jays supposed focus on negotiating a contract extension isn’t immediately regarded as a given, an obvious move for a team taking important steps towards winning baseball’s toughest division. The Jays have been fiscally responsible in the Anthopolous era and have locked up a number of core players recently. Richard Griffin is reporting that Rasmus is on deck in this regard, and it seems that many within the organization value his contributions. It’s just tough to determine what those contributions are, as Rasmus hasn’t hit well, hasn’t fielded well, and with four years of service time under his belt at the end of this season, he isn’t likely to come cheap anymore.

Keeping Rasmus around for another couple of seasons is a decision with some merit, for sure, but the Jays need to be careful here. Rasmus hasn’t shown any true sign of turning the corner or improving his productivity, and he simply isn’t the same player that topped 4 WAR with the 2010 Cardinals.

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What’s the Deal With Ubaldo?

Ubaldo Jimenez was once a terrific young starting pitcher for the Colorado Rockies. He had tremendous raw talent and pitching acumen to boot. If harnessed, he figured to miss bats, keep the ball on the ground and limit walks while remaining on the effectively wild side. He could dial it up to 96 mph — average fastball velocity of 95.8 mph in 2007 — and threw a top-notch, looping curveball that was tough to pick up with his herky-jerky windup. He was, potentially, the prototypical pitcher capable of succeeding at Coors Field.

After posting WAR totals of 4.3, 5.9 and 6.4 from 2008-10, he took a step back last season. His strikeout, walk and groundball numbers were very similar to the prior three years, but he served up more home runs and was less effective at stranding runners. Last season was a case of strong ERA estimators that belied better performance than his actual earned run average. As such, he seemed like a prime regression candidate this season. Through 28 starts and 161.1 innings this year, however, Jimenez has just 0.4 WAR. After averaging 5.5 WAR from 2008-10, Jimenez isn’t currently on pace to finish with even one win above replacement over a full season.

While last season’s relative struggles — he had been so effective that 3.5 WAR represented a down year — at least gave hope to improved performance, everything has gone wrong this season. Jimenez has regressed, but not in the direction his 2011 peripherals portended. Instead, he is set to finish this season with the worst numbers of his career across the board. He quickly went from one of the best to one of the worst, and it doesn’t seem that the major causes are easily fixable.

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The Dodgers Have A Good Outfield Problem

Shane Victorino was recently asked if he would return to the Dodgers in a part-time role next season. One of the many pieces the Dodgers added near the trade deadline, the former all-star centerfielder was adamant that he’ll seek regular playing time in his next deal. Given Victorino’s sentiments and the crowded Dodgers outfield, his return likely isn’t in the cards. However, the Dodgers may need someone like him over the next year or two as an insurance policy on Carl Crawford or a stopgap until Yasiel Puig is ready.

When the Dodgers acquired Crawford, along with Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez …and Nick Punto in last week’s megadeal, they put the finishing touches on a very expensive outfield for the foreseeable future.

The move didn’t come without consequences. In addition to the hefty contracts now on the books, the Dodgers created a positional logjam that may prove difficult to solve without eating salary or making subsequent trades.

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Lohse Headed For Free Agency

The Cardinals recently extended Jake Westbrook and converted his 2013 mutual option to a guaranteed salary with a new mutual option for 2014. St. Louis also began to shift its focus towards keeping Adam Wainwright in town beyond next season since he’s rounding into form after elbow surgery. Both starters have pitched very well for the Cardinals this season, and are major reasons for the recent surge that has Mike Matheny’s squad making inroads towards a wild-card berth.

It’s a tad surprising, though, that the team hasn’t engaged in any contract discussions with Kyle Lohse. An impending free agent who has pitched very well in the past two seasons, Lohse figures to draw a great deal of interest on the free-agent market. He likely will hit the market because, according to Jayson Stark, Cardinals executives have told others that they’re going to let the situation play out. Stark translated that to mean “free agency: here he comes.”

The Cardinals already have a crowded and effective starting rotation and Lohse made some sense as the odd man out. Regardless, he’s once again pitching effectively in a contract year, and he’s establishing himself as an innings-eater with good peripherals and solid run-prevention skills. That’s a roundabout way of saying that he’s a very good pitcher. Heading into his mid-30s, Lohse has begun pitching much better than his perception around would appear to indicate.

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Cody Ross, But Cheaper

The Red Sox entered this season with high hopes. Fast-forward 122 games and they’re a disappointing 59-63 with just 4% odds of making the playoffs. The front of the rotation has had issues preventing runs. Several members of the lineup have performed below their established level of production. Plenty of key contributors have spent time on the disabled list, and recent reports suggest players have a mutinous relationship with their manager.

Plenty has gone wrong for the 2012 Red Sox, but one of the bright spots has been Cody Ross. The 31-year-old outfielder, who signed for just one year and $3 million, has a .359 wOBA, 122 wRC+ and 2.4 WAR. His strong production has many wondering about his next contract. Ross has said that he’d like to return to Boston, and all signs point to the team having mutual interest. Ross may have put himself in line for a multi-year deal similar to Josh Willingham’s most recent contract — three years and $21 million — despite being less consistent and not as talented. Willingham has produced in the 3 WAR to 4 WAR range during the past several seasons while Ross has been in the 2 WAR to 3 WAR range.

And then there’s this: the main area in which Ross excels — crushing lefties — can be replicated fairly easily. Interested teams may be able to acquire cheaper Ross-like production by considering a few players with similar skill-sets.

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Chipper’s Going Out (Nearly) On Top

Chipper Jones announced in March that he would retire at the season’s end. He cited various reasons for ending his hall-of-fame career and admitted that he was tired of living the baseball lifestyle. Always one to answer questions honestly in an era of generalities, he said that his decision was firm; no matter what, he was done once the Braves’ season ended.

As expected, his steadfastness to that decision has been tested, and reporters frequently ask whether he’s changed his mind. Maybe there’s a point to those questions. After all, Jones has a .379 wOBA and 2.9 WAR right now. And he’s on pace for his best season in four years. He projects to finish the season with a .372 wOBA and 4 WAR, and players don’t generally retire after posting numbers like that.

So where does his final season rank among career-concluding seasons throughout history. Is he truly going out on top?

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Another Hypothetical Heath Bell Deal

The Miami Marlins grand experiment hasn’t worked this year, leading to the trades of Hanley Ramirez, Anibal Sanchez, Omar Infante and Randy Choate before the non-waiver trade deadline. In a perfect world, they wouldn’t have had to trade those players, because they would still be fighting for a playoff spot at this point in the season. But it hasn’t been a perfect world for the Marlins, and one of the major imperfections is the performance of high-priced reliever Heath Bell.

Signed to a lucrative three-year deal this offseason, Bell was supposed to help transform the Marlins into legitimate championship contenders. He has, however, been quite bad, losing the confidence of his manager and the closer role itself, and there haven’t been any signs of him turning things around.

The Marlins have already unloaded a number of valuable assets, but have had trouble finding a suitor for Bell. That’s what tends to happen with relievers who make a lot of money despite being shells of their former selves. Bell was already linked to the Red Sox in a rumor that had him and Hanley heading to Boston in exchange for Carl Crawford. The deal never materialized, but it was a very interesting thought experiment, as the salaries getting swapped were similar and the move represented a change-of-scenery challenge for those involved.

According to a recent Ken Rosenthal report, the Marlins were engaged in another change-of-scenery challenge trade involving Bell this week. This time, they spoke to the Mets about trading Bell and catcher John Buck for Jason Bay. No formal deal was proposed and the idea didn’t truly gain traction, but it again represented an interesting idea. Considering that no other team is going to relieve the Marlins of Bell’s salary, or the Mets of Bay’s, this is a deal worth revisiting before the waiver deadline.

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The Plummeting Stock of Lars Anderson

The Indians acquired Lars Anderson from the Red Sox on Tuesday, sending knuckleballing prospect Steven Wright — not to be confused with this guy — to Boston. Anderson was once considered one of the top prospects in the game, but struggled in major league cups of coffee (or shots of espresso given how short his major league stints were in 2011-12) and was never viewed as a viable long-term solution at first base or designated hitter.

From 2008-10, however, he was the talk of the rumor mill. His name popped up in practically every Red Sox trade rumor. Last offseason, the Athletics were interested in him as part of the Andrew Bailey package. In July 2011, the Athletics were close to acquiring him in exchange for Rich Harden.

In 2009, Anderson was frequently discussed as part of a potential prospect package for Roy Halladay. The year before that he was mentioned as a key part of a rumor surrounding then-Padres starter Jake Peavy.

As recently as two years ago, Anderson was viewed as a key part of potential returns on all-stars and award winners. Since then, his stock has fallen to the point that he only netted the Red Sox a risky Double-A knuckleballer.

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White Sox Acquire Liriano For Stretch Run

Kenny Williams reportedly worked his tail off to land Zack Greinke from the Brewers this week. The American League Central is up for grabs and the White Sox and Tigers have gone back and forth for the division lead in recent weeks.

Greinke would have solidified the White Sox hold on the division by giving them another top starter to go along with Chris Sale and Jake Peavy.

Williams was so entrenched in Greinke trade talks that he even searched for a third team to get involved after it became clear that his farm system wouldn’t get the job done. No deal was struck and Greinke was dealt to the Angels. The White Sox weren’t done shopping and turned their attention to a starter they have seen quite a bit over the past several seasons: Francisco Liriano. Williams acquired the 28-year-old on Saturday from the division-rival Minnesota Twins for prospects Eduardo Escobar and Pedro Hernandez. The White Sox didn’t deal away all that much, so even if Liriano is nothing more than a two-month rental, the move was well worth it based on what he could provide the rest of the season.

Liriano is a free-agent after the season and has modest salary requirements the rest of the way. He also won’t net the White Sox any compensation picks, given the rules set forth in the new collective bargaining agreement.

But he does upgrade the White Sox rotation, especially in the context of injuries: Gavin Floyd has battled tendinitis and John Danks remains on the disabled list. And if Liriano continues to pitch the way he has after getting put back into the rotation, this could look like even more of a deadline steal.

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