Phillies Shouldn’t Have Banked on Chase Utley

He'll probably play this season, but knee problems will prevent him from being second baseman slugger we know and love.

The latest chapter in what has become an all-too-familiar saga unfolded Sunday, when Phillies second baseman Chase Utley finally decided to speak to the media about his cranky knees. For a guy who usually says as much as Hickory High standout Jimmy Chitwood, the 17 minutes Utley spent in front of the microphones and tape recorders had to be excruciating for him.

Utley told his inquisitors that his knee problem wasn’t “chronic,” although his trouble started in 2010 and persists. Webster’s defines “chronic” as “lasting a long time or recurring often”, so perhaps Utley was referring to Dr. Dre’s version of the word. He said that as long as he get “things around [his] knee to move better,” he’ll be just fine. In other words, if his quads and hammies and gastrocnemius are in tip-top shape, it won’t matter if the bones in his knees are grinding against each other like a skatepunk on a handrail. Finally, Utley laughed off the idea that this injury could end his career or force him to undergo mircofracture surgery, which has been a graveyard for several athletes. (See Oden, Finished.)

You can’t fault Utley for his defiance. Telling any professional athlete, particularly one as competitive as the 33-year old second baseman, that a simple lack of cartilage in his knee means the end of the line is an invitation to defiance. It’s good that Utley will continue fighting to return to the field. But the way he and the Phillies reached this point is cause for concern and criticism. Utley’s unwillingness to give the team a true window into his training and condition, and the team’s reticence to control more how he went about his off-season regimen have put the 2012 season into danger. Further, by refusing to implement a sturdy insurance policy, the Phillies have invited some legitimate questions about how they do business.

It is mystifying that the Phillies believed an off-season of rest and rehabilitation would be sufficient for a player whose production had fallen off considerably over the past two seasons. Utley finished with 16 dingers in 115 games in ’10 and only 11 in 103 last year. Had Utley homered at those rates over 162 games each year, he would have finished with 22.5 and 17.3, respectively, hardly slugger numbers. Utley’s slugging percentage has dropped both seasons, a clear indication that he lacks the strength to drive the ball. He has gone from an All-Star number three hitter to someone who should be batting second or seventh.

With medical evidence clearly weighted against a full resurrection by Utley–his condition, chondromalacia, does not have a specific cure–GM Ruben Amaro made a critical error in late January by trading away Wilson Valdez to Cincinnati for a bag of magic beans. Amaro admitted the gaffe last week during an interview with Mike Missanelli on 97.5 The Fanatic, something that hardly salves fans’ wounds. How could the Phillies have been so ignorant of Utley’s true condition that they would give away the one player capable of serving as a solid stopgap in his absence? The team owes Utley $30 million over the next couple seasons, had complete knowledge of his injury and yet allowed him to direct his off-season program without examining him to make sure things had changed? Then, it dished off a proven backup for nothing? Had Ed Wade done something like that, he might have been seized by fans and taken to the Elgin Baylor Home for Awful GMs.

By refusing to perform necessary due diligence on Utley and then giving away Valdez, the Phillies put themselves in the position of having to rely on Freddy Galvis at second. The team believed so clearly Galvis wasn’t ready for the big leagues that it gave Jimmy Rollins and his declining game a three-year deal during the off-season in order to prevent Galvis from having to play shortstop in 2012 (and beyond) and face big-league pitching. Now, Galvis is the team’s Opening Day second baseman, even though he never played the position before this year. If that sounds like good management, then you have been an Astros fan for the past five seasons.

The Phillies’ desire to soft-pedal Utley’s problems couldn’t possibly have been linked to the desire to sell tickets, could it? Naaahhhh. If that were the case, the team would have tried to tell us that 240-pound first baseman Ryan Howard could come back from Achilles tendon repair in just seven months. Oh, they did? Never mind.

Utley will probably return to the Phillies. Chondromalacia is best treated with rest, nonsteroidal painkillers and rehabilitation of the area surrounding the knee. He’ll probably play about 110 games, run real fast and play a respectable second base. But he won’t be close to what he once was, and given the recent dropoff in his play, can’t be expected to be a major, middle-of-the-order contributor. On a team that will struggle to score runs, that’s not a good thing. Meanwhile, Galvis will likely be overmatched both in the field and at the plate and could well have his confidence shattered by an assignment that should never have come his way. Expect Amaro to land a middle infielder by trade or signing, with the likelihood of the newcomer’s being a top-shelf player near zero.

For an organization that has made so many good moves over the past several seasons, this one stands out as a colossal blunder from the minute the Phils’ 2011 season whimpered to a close. By refusing to have a strong contingency plan in place at second while Utley hoped rest and exercise would return his damaged knee to its former state, the team put the 2012 season in jeopardy. Utley will work as hard as possible to return; that’s guaranteed. But he can’t be counted on to be what he was three years ago. And starting the season with Galvis at second base is something we expect from the Pirates.

If Amaro can somehow trade Joe Blanton for Brandon Phillips, then everything will be all right. Barring that miracle, the Phillies will pray they can survive Utley’s absence and pine for Valdez.


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