You have to hand it to Philadelphia Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr.: he certainly sticks to his plan.
As long as the Phillies were winning -- and they did a ton of that, capturing five straight National League East crowns, two NL pennants and the 2008 World Series -- Amaro's plan to keep his team's offensive core together, supplement them with as much pitching as his farm system could be dealt for, and hope for the best looked like the work of a genius.
But for nearly two full seasons now, Amaro has been faced with incontrovertible evidence that his strategy is no longer working. Ryan Howard was extended in 2010, and his contract has been rightly ridiculed ever since. Jimmy Rollins was brought back on an expensive three-year deal signed in December of 2011, and has aged as most shortstops do. So the core hasn't been particularly reliable.
Nor have the results continued at the once-grand pace of 2007-2011. The Phillies finished 81-81 last year, and after hovering around the very edges of playoff contention for much of 2013, they've lost eight in a row, sit 11.5 games back of NL East leaders Atlanta, and 9.5 back of the final wild card, Cincinnati.
Most teams would be looking to sell. Instead, the Phillies went out and paid nearly $50 million in guaranteed money for Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, the Cuban pitcher sought by many. This makes sense, given Gonzalez's talent, his youth (just 26), and that this loophole is basically the only way to leverage money into adding young talent.
But this other idea, which is to lock up Chase Utley forever, is admirable in its pursuit of an idea to its logical extreme. But man, does it seem like a mistake.
Let me be clear: Utley, 34, has been an incredible player. During his peak, from 2005-2009, exactly one player earned more wins above replacement, per Baseball-Reference, than Chase Utley, and that was Albert Pujols. No one else came particularly close; Alex Rodriguez finished five wins behind Utley over those five years.
Had Utley been allowed to take the second base job a few years earlier, or stayed healthy a few years later, we'd be talking about Utley as not just the finest second baseman in Phillies history by far, but as a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
But about that staying healthy part: Utley just hasn't, not for years. He's played in 115, 103 and 83 games in the 2010-2012 seasons. He's at 76 now, and there's no guarantee he'll stay healthy for the rest of this season.
But as Jon Heyman reported: "Some have suggested Carlos Beltran's $26 million, two-year deal is a reasonable template for Utley considering their status as stars who've had knee issues, but Phillies GM Ruben Amaro's comments that he'd like to make Utley a 'Phillie for life' suggest he may be considering at least three years."
I mean, that's just adorable. Amaro has said, multiple times, that he intends to make Utley a Phillie for life. But what does that mean, really? Just how long will he keep rolling Utley out there, keeping the band of Utley, Rollins and Howard together? Jimmy Rollins has an OPS+ of 84, but he recently refused to consider a trade on the grounds of trying to climb the Phillies' all-time leaderboard. He's signed through next year, and has a 2015 vesting option, and, right, a full no-trade clause. Howard is signed through 2016, for enough money to make him essentially untradeable, too.
And a three-year deal for Utley would keep him a Phillie through 2016 as well. At Beltran annual money, that's three years, $39 million. What can the Phillies hope to get for their loyalty?
Well, consider that Utley will begin his next contract in his age-35 season. That age and beyond has not been kind to second basemen. Eight second basemen, ever, have put up at least 10 WAR from their age-35 seasons on. Eight.
Three of the top four were Eddie Collins, Nap Lajoie and Charlie Gehringer, so the only two since World War II in the top five were Joe Morgan and Jeff Kent, and they each needed five seasons to log that much value. The other three: Lou Whitaker, Mark Grudzielanek, and Randy Velarde. Whitaker is an obvious oversight for the Hall of Fame, great until the end. If the Phillies get latter-career Grudzielanek or Velarde, they're not going to be thrilled.
But the larger point is that while these eight, spread over the past 100 years, provided good, though probably not 3/39 value, they are the exceptions. And the rule is: every other second baseman ever.
Also worth pointing out: none of the eight had missed extended time in four consecutive seasons right before putting up that reasonably solid post-35 value.
The strangest part of this is that teams don't even need to employ their once-great players into dotage to get that sentimental moment. Just days ago, the Yankees held a lavish ceremony for Hideki Matsui, who signed a one-day contract and retired as a Yankee. He wasn't a Yankee for life, though: after winning the World Series MVP in 2009, the Yankees rightly determined he was out of gas, and jettisoned him. Matsui put up a reasonably good 2010, and then he was finished. No one, especially Matsui himself, thinks of Hideki Matsui as a Tampa Bay Ray, or Oakland Athletic, or Los Angeles Angel of Anaheim.
"This moment will be a moment that I will never forget," Matsui said Sunday. "To be able to retire as a member of the team that I aspired to and looked up to, I think there is nothing more fulfilling."
Amaro seems to disagree. And if he gets his way, we'll get to see exactly how that version of events looks. If history is any guide, it won't be pretty.