Peter Gammons: Chase Utley, Mattingly’s roster decisions, the Mets, and more

Understand, the return of Chase Utley was not a luxury item, a Rodeo Drive trinket. It was, in many ways, Farhan Zaidi and Andrew Friedman’s exercise in baseball democracy.

It was clearly peer driven, respect from teammates, young and old, that even with the acquisition of Logan Forsythe—which was universally applauded by the Dodger players—the players lobbied Friedman and Zaidi for the return of Utley and his impact on what at times seemed to be a disjointed culture. And the powers that be listed, especially since Utley made it clear that the Dodgers were the team for whom he wanted to play.

Zaidi and Friedman stayed in constant contact with Utley because, they too, hold the 38 year old in the highest personal and professional esteem. They heard from Corey Seager. They heard from Justin Turner. From Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill. They heard from Dave Roberts and all his coaches; Tim Hyers told one of his former Red Sox co-workers “Utley is the most unbelievable guy I’ve ever met in baseball.”

Not that that’s unusual. Charlie Manuel once said “I played with great players and men like Harmon Killebrew and Tony Oliva, I coached incredible people like Jim Thome, but in all my years in baseball the person I most respect is Chase Utley.”

Coaches tell the story of a game in which the Dodgers had a big lead in the top of the eighth inning when one younger, enthusiastic teammate stole second base, which ticked off the opposition. When Utley got to the plate in the ninth, he told the opposing catcher to have the pitcher drill him. Then his teammate would understand there are consequences for showing up the opposition.

Then there was a game last year in which Kershaw wasn’t getting strikes he thought he’d thrown. When the Dodgers got back to the dugout, A.J. Ellis was hollering at the home plate umpire. Utley warned Ellis not to get ejected. Chase grabbed a batboy’s skull cap,a jacket,  got a towel and rounded up a bunch of fresh baseballs and went out to give the umpires the balls, which is the batboy’s job. When the umpire asked him what he was doing, Utley told him he was not going to embarrass the ump, that no one would notice he was out there, but Kershaw had to have some of those pitches. Having spoken his peace, Utley ran back to the dugout like just another clubbie batboy.

There were a lot of teams that were interested in Utley. The Indians had been two years in a row, but he wanted to stay in L.A., and their needs were more righthanded. Same with Boston, and Minnesota. Chase knows he isn’t going to start 145 games. He knows he had 97 plate appearances against lefthanded pitchers last season and posted a .154/.206/.470 line. But his teammates also know the Dodgers were 68-50 when he started, know he had a 1.076 OPS against the Mets and who and what he is.

He’s worth having around Joc Pederson and Cody Bellinger, who is probably going to end up playing a lot of left field against righthanded pitchers. Seager doesn’t need any mentoring or to hear things he doesn’t like, because he’s another generation’s Utley.

The Dodgers have a brilliant army of analytics folks, but this was all about the human element, about a player pushing edge and accountability on younger players that coaches can try to do, but sometimes without proper attention spans. When it’s Kershaw and Seager and Turner who are saying they need Chase Utley, Zaidi and Friedman listened and carried through.

Yes, that was 1.076 vs. the Mets. Yes, the first time they face Noah Syndergaard, bet the house that Chase Utley is in the lineup.

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–The Mets seem confident that their heralded starters—Syndegaard, deGrom, Harvey, Matz) are healthy. But they’re curious to see if the surgery on Robert Gsellman’s left labrum worked.

Between Las Vegas and the Mets, Gsellman never swung at a pitch last season: 28 at-bats. No swings. Now, he did bunt; in fact he got a bunt hit both in triple-A and the majors. And one team—the Phillies—didn’t realize he could not swing and pitched him as if he could. Will it work? We’ll see/. Maybe he’ll be this year’s Bartolo Colon

–One definite change in the redefinition of the Twins will be that Miguel Sano will not be moving around as he turns 24 in May. Sano hit 25 homers last season, but he because of his size, he played only 42 games at third base, 76 in the outfield, 36 as DH. The club put Sano on a conditioning program this off-season and now will leave him at third base, beginning with an intense defensive learning program in Fort Myers. If Sano indeed ends up a 35 home run hitter, his value is far greater at his boyhood position, third base.

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Don Mattingly plans on going with 8 relievers, 4 starters and a 4 man bench. “Where some of the starters are going to be going four or five innings, I may have to let the pitcher hit in the fourth or fifth, then take him out,” says Mattingly. He can’t pinch hit his backup catcher. Probably his weapons on the bench will be Ichiro Suzuki and Derek Dietrich “I may have to save them to be used in high leverage spots,” says Mattingly.

Mattingly has serious issues facing his Marlins. The first is the starting pitching; in contrast to the outs per start in Boston’s $63M four man rotation of Chris Sale, Rick Porcello, David Price and Steven Wright

American League Outs Per Start Leaders, 2016

Sale,           Bos    21

Porcello,    Bos   20

Price,          Bos   20

Wright,      Bos   20

Kluber,       Cle   20

Verlander, Det   20

Quintana,  Chi   20

Mattingly is going to try to go with a five man rotation of 4-5 inning pitchers, eight relievers-three of whom can go long or spot start—and four bench players, catcher AJ Ellis, Ichiro Suzuki, Derek Dietrich, Miguel Rojas . This, Mattingly warns, could present a problem. He may have to let starting pitchers hit in the 4th or 5th inning, relieve them, to save Ichiro and Dietrich for high leverage hitting situations.

Not to be a spoil sport, but letting his starters bat a second or third time raises these career batting stats for that starting rotation:

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Conley         .122

Koehler       .089

Chen           .000

Straily         .018

Volquez      .082

Madison Bumgarner ain’t walking through their clubhouse door.

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