Lost amid 1) all the unfortunate hand-wringing over Chase Utley’s balky knees; 2) the ultimately pointless finger-pointing about who was wrong about when Utley would return to the field; and 3) the chin-stroking about why the the team didn’t retain as Utley insurance a guy with a career 621 OPS , who’s interchangable with Michael Martinez and whose ultimate value is as a trivia answer, is this:
What we may be witnessing with Chut-knee-gate 2.0 is more than just another protracted spring drama for the greatest second baseman to ever don the Phillies pinstripes. We are most likely watching Utley’s chance at baseball immortality—enshrinement in the Hall of Fame, an honor that, just one calendar year ago, he seemed on track for—definitively circling the drain.
To the first points:
1) It’s in athletes’ general nature to be cocksure and over-optimistic about their physical prowess and health. It’s also, from a bargaining standpoint, in a general manager’s best interest to be obfuscatory when discussing the severity or lack thereof of a player’s injury; it’s better for fans if their GM not be handcuffed by obvious desperation than for them to know every single detail of their team’s medical file.
2) Joint injuries are unpredictable, especially chondromalacia patellae. Ask an athletic trainer. Anyone seriously questioning whether Chase Utley did all he could do to be ready for the season hasn’t been following Chase Utley.
3) The difference between giving too many at-bats to Wilson Valdez, Michael Martinez or a not-ready-for-prime-time Freddy Galvis is immaterial; when you lose a $15 million a year guy, you are, by definition, screwed (unless you can afford to keep a spare $15 million player sitting around to replace him).
To the larger issue: Chase Utley’s chance at baseball’s ultimate honor seems to be evaporating. He had a chance to be one of the all-time greats at second base, an exclusive list that includes the likes of Joe Morgan, Ryne Sandberg, Rogers Hornsby, Roberto Alomar and Rod Carew. Going into the last two seasons, Utley’s closest comparison, statistically, by age, was Jeff Kent (said another way: Utley’s career stats at ages 31 and 32 were most comparable to the stats Jeff Kent had accumulated at the same age). Kent—as likely an eventual Hall-of-Famer as will emerge from the musky thick of the steroids era—was a fellow second baseman who put up eye-popping offensive numbers and who blossomed into a major leaguer late. (Kent became a full-time starter when he was 25; Utley when he was 26.)
And like Kent, Utley’s comparables include several players (Vinny Castilla and J.D. Drew) who play premium offensive positions.
Here’s what you need to know about second base: It has historically been a defense-first position, the province of scrappy, light-hitting, punch-and-judy glovemen. Only in recent decades have slugging types like Kent, Utley, Bret Boone, Dan Uggla and Brandon Phillips become more common at the keystone. But unlike some of the strangegloved, offensive-minded second sackers (looking at you, Kent and Uggla), Utley is also a fantastic fielder.
He’s the kind of guy who, over a 15-year or so career, could rack up the kind of numbers that, for as outstanding a fielder as he is, would be tough to keep out of Cooperstown. Maybe not first-ballot material, but close.
For fun, let’s look at a realistic, best-case scenario and say Utley, who’s already played seven “full” seasons and parts of two others, manages to work around his balky knees to eke out something like six more seasons, retiring at age 38 when the offseason routine he has to undertake to get his ever stiffer knees in shape becomes too much for even a hyper-motivated guy like him. We’ll presume his prime years are gone for good and that the last two seasons represent something like a new normal. We’ll pencil in three of those remaining seasons at his 2010 level (115 games, 16 HR, 65 RBI, 832 OPS) and three at this 2011 level (103 games, 11 HR, 44 RBI, 769 OPS), neither an overly optimistic nor overly pessimistic guesstimate.
You’d end up with a second baseman—who’d maybe be ending his career playing either increasingly mediocre defense, or hunkering down at 1B or DH—with about 270 HR, 1,000 RBI, 1,100 runs scored and an 850 OPS, a.k.a. spitting distance of, but definitely not quite the same class as, Hall of Famer second basemen Joe Morgan, Ryne Sandberg and Roberto Alomar. And that’s the “best-case” scenario—close-but-no-cigar. Sad to say, but, barring some sort of miraculous late-career return to late-20s form spurred by a medical advance in treating his specific knee injury, Utley’s Hall of Fame chances relied on his extending his prime—those magical seasons when he was clouting 30+ home runs and 40+ doubles—well into his mid-30s before beginning his career decline. Hall of Famers, for the simple fact that you’ve got to play a lot of seasons to accumulate “Hall of Fame” numbers, don’t tend to start their decline at 31.
And the worst case is—nothing against the guy—but the worst case is that the Freddy Galvis era starts now.