Guess who’s back?
In case you haven’t heard, the Philadelphia Phillies are getting their All-Star second baseman back in the lineup tonight, as Chase Utley is set to make his 2011 season debut. Utley will hit second, and we’re all hoping that the Phillies can hit at all.
The Phillies have been starved for bats and runs through the first 46 games this season, and the fans have been starved for Utley’s return. But now, here comes the cavalry. Last week, Domonic Brown arrived. This week it’s Utley and presumably next week, Shane Victorino returns from the DL. It’ll be tough to judge just exactly what the Phillies will have going forward until they get the proper pieces to the puzzle in place, on the field and at the plate at the same time. But your average fans and onlookers will probably tell you, it can’t get much worse as far as the offense is concerned.
The talk surrounding Utley’s return is as though the Phillies had their reverse record at 18-28. It’s difficult to look upon the first 46 games without Utley, without closer Brad Lidge, and largely without Brown and view it as anything short of a success. They’re first in the NL East. They have the National League’s best record, even with the NL’s fifth worst run total. The Phillies are averaging 3.82 runs per game and have scored 176 runs this season, which is good for dead last among teams in their divison, even worse than the notoriously run-challenged Washington Nationals.
But through the injuries and largely ineffective and bad offense, it’s been the pitching, and stellar pitching, from both starters and relievers that’s kept the sky from falling in Philadelphia. The pitching suggests the Phillies can get to the show and win it all in October. The hitting suggests they’d struggle to generate runs in the California Penal League. It’s silly to suggest that the Phillies right now couldn’t use Utley. The numbers have been brutal particulary in the second month of this season: in May, the Phillies have scored three runs or fewer in nine straight games, managed six hits or less in eight of their past nine games. In 27 of their past 42 games played, the Phillies have scored three runs or less.
It’s been a grueling, bad stretch of road watching this team slump, slunk and sink further into the hitting abyss. Somehow, despite the sellouts at Citizens Bank Park, the fans have been willing to patiently wait, enduring the nights of wasted pitching performances, failed comebacks and the likes of Pete Orr and Wilson Valdez manning the position in Utley’s absence all so we could get to this point where the prodigal son returns to begin the bailout process.
But will it be that simple?
We know Utley’s returning and we know what he’s returning to, but the questions can’t be ignored or brushed under home plate. Utley has been sidelined since early March with patellar tendinitis, chondromalacia and bone inflammation in his right knee. The problems developed during offseason workouts and became worse during spring training, but rather than opting for surgery Utley and the Phillies opted to travel the conservative course and allow Utley to take a shot at long-term rehabilitation without surgery. In turn, the Phillies offense suffered in his absence and their in-house replacements have done little to make anyone forget about No.26.
How much can Utley help the Phillies right now?
The short term answer appears to be that Utley’s prescence can have no worse of an adverse affect on the lineup than the rest of the Phillies second baseman have had this season through 46 games. Philadelphia has gotten zero home runs from the second base position in the lineup. Neither Valdez or Orr is hitting about.234 and collectively, they’re hitting .225/.269/.270. Those numbers (average, OBP and slugging) rival those put up by pitchers for the Houston Astros. The struggles of the rest of the lineup can be well documented. The Jimmy Rollins in the No.3 spot experiment failed miserably and had just two RBI’s near the end of April. Rollins has two RBI’s in the past 11 games and is hitting .262 drawing 21 walks to his 21 strike outs. Ryan Howard has suffered greatly without protection in front or behind him, hitting .243 and recently went through his worst career drought, going 0-for-23. Raul Ibanez and John Mayberry are hitting under .235. Carlos Ruiz is batting .211 while Ben Francisco is hitting .216. Had it not been for Placido Polanco, the Phillies would be looking at perhaps one of the worst lineups up and down in baseball. So, in short, as you’ve witnessed, the Phillies seem to be in dire need of Utley to spark this somber lineup.
What Chase Utley are the Phillies getting?
That seems to be the biggest question. It would outlandish to believe the Phillies are getting the 2007-08 Utley. He’s 32 and the evidence of a decline is present. His average, OBP and slugging have dropped in three straight seasons since ’07. His hits have declined in three straight years, his doubles totals have regressed in the past four seasons. His games played, hits and home totals have each gone south the past three seasons. Now he’s at square one this season because of a troublesome right knee, but exactly how healthy Utley is remains just as big a question mark. The Phillies and Utley have discussed the proper management plan as he works his way back and it’s likely he’s not going to play every day, which in turn might make it difficult for him to find his groove.
Is Utley being rushed back too soon?
Only time will tell, but for my money if a guy cannot play every day, how useful can he be? It’s not going to be beneficial for the Phillies nor Utley if they’re playing a musical chairs game with him in the lineup. We’ve all seen Utley emerge as perhaps baseball’s best second baseman and he’s elevated to that All-Star level by going one speed and playing one way: all out, all day every game. I just can’t see Utley changing his everyday approach to the game, so with that said, how much can subject that knee to the grind, the torsion and the pounding it’ll take when he hits, runs the bases, tries to leg out a double, going from first-to-third on a single or diving for ground balls in the hole?
There seems to be no quick fix, here. It’s going to take probably another month, perhaps longer like in the 6-8 week span for Utley to get reacclimated to rigors of playing, finding his swing and getting his timing fully back. It’s going to take a while for the Phillies and Utley to agree on the proper relationshiop of playing time and rest. It’s likely Utley is going to push to play every day and the Phillies are going to have to do their damnest to resit. Likewise, it’s going to take Domonic Brown probably the same amount of time to adjust to playing every day in the outfield while getting comfortable at the plate.
It would be foolish and naiive to believe Utley will return to his all-star caliber of play after a cup of coffee in the minors. But we know for sure that his return brings some good drama. I anticipate he’ll get a king’s welcome when they announce his name in the starting lineup and the first time he steps in the batter’s box in the bottom of the first. There are plenty of questions left that will be answered in time. Can the Phillies survive the chase from the rest of the pack, particularly Atlanta and Florida who are nipping at their heels? Can the likes of Utley and Howard and Polanco rotate turns and carry the lineup? Will they get any help from Rollins, Francisco or Ibanez? Can Brown and Mayberry take over the corner outfield spots in the field and at the plate?
Questions remains, but we’ve got one answer: Chase Utley is back tonight.
Expect an ear popping ovation.