The whispers were everywhere, and had actually begun way back in June when inquisitive minds were curious to understand the startling drop in offensive production by Philadelphia Phillies all-world second baseman, Chase Utley. Not only had Utley's offensive numbers begun to plunge, but his swing looked somehow different, almost as if he was now swinging a bat tethered tightly around the base of a giant redwood tree. Gone was the lithe, smooth, almost effortless swing that had catapulted the Phillie star to the upper reaches of current baseball greatness.
Perhaps it was merely a slip of the tongue but more likely it was really just the easy and effortless way in which now retired Phillie GM Pat Gillick attacks most subjects. When asked a question he will answer it as honestly as possible without revealing too much about his most private thoughts and opinions. When asked about Utley's offensive decline he commented that Utley was having some hip issues. That was it. No more, no less. Hip issues.
Those hip issues, rarely discussed during the team's race and ultimate victory lap to the top of the baseball world in 2008 has now led to impending surgery, the kind that could well put a giant question mark directly behind the exclamation point that so clearly defined the rest of the '08 calendar. More succinctly, that question mark is likely to last well in the 2009 year, with an answer not possible until May at the earliest.
Of course, the news only served to further place Chase Utley in the rarefied air of Phillie mythological heroes, the kind that truly exemplify that oft used phrase, "true grit". That Utley was able to perform as well as he did is a standing testament to his talent, desire and ability to withstand pain. Does anyone truly believe the Phillies could have won the title without him? Recall his home run off of Derek Lowe in the first game of the National League Championship series, a hit that basically turned the game around. Or, remember the first inning home run in Game One of the World Series, a two run blow that gave the Phils and Cole Hamels a lead they would never relinquish in that key game?
However, the play that will most likely be imprinted forever in the hearts and minds of Phillie phanatics everywhere is that amazing defensive play in the seventh inning of Game Five of the World Series against the Tampa Bay Rays. With the score tied 3-3 and a Ray runner heading for home, Utley fielded a ball up the middle, faked a throw to first base and then made an acrobatic one hop toss to catcher Carlos Ruiz, all in one incredible motion. The runner was tagged out, the score remained tied and the Phils went on to win the game and the series in large part because of the efforts of that play.
That Chase Utley could have fielded that ball, much less made his pirouette catch, plant and throw move on an injured hip only further defines the play... and the man. Simply put, Chase Utley is a throwback player on a throwback team, the kind of player that baseball rarely witnesses anymore, not in this day of multi-year contracts, impending fee agency and ever more intrusive agents who implore their clients to take a 15 day trip to the disabled list for the smallest of hangnails.
It should be remembered also that in 2007 Chase Utley suffered a broken hand on July 26 when hit by an errant pitch against the Washington Nationals. First reports were of a six to eight week stay on the disabled list and some experts even speculated that his season, and most likely the Phils season, was over. Not so fast, and not so with Utley. He was back a bit over three weeks later, just in time to help lead is squad on an improbable march to the playoffs from a deficit that seemed insurmountable.
Certainly that history is cause for optimism in regards to the likely length of recovery and eventual return to all-star form but hips are iffy things and this is no teeth cleaning visit to the dentist. This is a hip injury, the same kind that ended the career of super athlete Bo Jackson and caused even the equally tough Mike Lowell to call it a year in October when his hip refused to respond to treatment and rest.
Yes, there is cause for concern, at least until the doctors place their arthroscopic lenses inside Utley's balky hip to see the damage. If it appears minor, they might just do some arthroscopic work, tell him to take it easy for a couple of months and he might make it back in time for the end of spring training. That is the most optimistic view, and one that is unlikely to come to fruition. More likely is the scenario where there is a need to shave the bone, which could be in the early stages of degeneration. This is of a more serious nature and would involve a rehabilitation period of about five or six months. In either case, the news was cause for pause and reflection among the masses who had been enjoying the very plausible calm after far too many stormy Phillie off seasons.
Still, it is a reflection of the realization that a championship after far too many summers of discontent has allowed for the continued serenity that might otherwise have turned this story into a full blown reason for panic. Concern? Certainly. Panic? Not a chance.
For one thing, the long-term prognosis is good and Utley should eventually return to his All-Star form sometime in 2009. For another, this puts to rest any underlying reason for Utley's long slump in 2009. Renewed health should guarantee renewed outstanding play. And finally, the team has at its disposal the resources necessary to withstand this offseason blow, regardless of the near-term affect it had on the baseball climates in New York, Atlanta, Chicago and Los Angeles. All of those cities have teams that hope to dethrone the Phillies next season and this news could only cause them more optimism that just such an event might indeed take place.
A closer look at the landscape, however, reveals that the Fightins have at least a "fightin" chance to withstand this blow given the resources at their current disposal. On a long term basis, the Phillies would not be served well by using utility infielder Eric Bruntlett as their first form of defense. Oh, his defense is fine, even exemplary, but his bat leaves much to be desired on a daily basis and the team's offense would suffer immeasurably.
However, should Utley be laid low merely for the month of April, it is not unreasonable to assume that Bruntlett could handle the "brunt" of the load without long-term negative ramifications for the team. If, however, the prognosis calls for a longer stay on the rehab line for Utley, then watch for the Phillies to visit other options, both with interesting and potentially long term advantageous effects.
Infielder Jason Donald is a name barely seen as a blip on the Phillies radar screen but that blip could soon become a full borne bounce should he continue his rapid rise up the prospect charts within the organization. Within the last year Donald has A] put up outstanding offensive numbers at Reading in the Double-A Eastern League, B] performed admirably in the Summer World Games and C] been one of the very best players in the very tough Arizona Fall League, hitting a staggering .407.
To say that Jason Donald has caught the attention of Phillie organizational types is an understatement. Yet, it was that same attention that made him a likely candidate for trade this winter as interested opposing teams continually pressed the Phils for inclusion of Donald in any potential deal. With the injury to Utley that talk, if it ever reached crescendo stage, has quickly been put to rest. Necessity is often the impetus to invention and the Phils might well use this necessity to move Donald from his more comfortable home at shortstop to second base.
This move, should it occur, might also have even larger long-term ramifications for the club. Quite simply, the Phillies are in eventual need of a third baseman, possibly as soon as this upcoming season. Although the Utley news was front and center on the Phillie charts that day, that wasn't the only injury report announced. On the same day, the team disclosed that third baseman Pedro Feliz, who is entering the final season of his two-year contract, was preparing for back surgery. While the prognosis on Feliz was less stringent than was the report on Utley, it still set up long-term alarm bells within the organization.
It appears that Feliz will be able to return to action within three months and should be ready, willing and able to perform on a largely unimpeded basis come the middle of spring training. Still, back injuries as with hip problems, are inexact sciences and no one can be sure that the defensive minded Felix will return to his former Gold Glove like form.
This might mean that Jason Donald, temporary heir apparent to Chase Utley at second base, might well become Jason Donald, permanent heir apparent to Pedro Feliz at third base. This could eventually become a win-win situation for the Phillies. It is not without some irony that Hall of Fame second baseman Ryne Sandberg was Donald's coach in the Arizona Fall League and was among his biggest supporters. It was none other than Sandberg, who was once a solid infielder without a position in the Phillies system, that caused many current Philadelphia coaches to wince at the prospect of trading the talented Donald.
The Phillies have never been forgiven for dealing Sandberg to the Chicago Cubs when many within the minor league coaching staff insisted that his long term potential was higher than fellow minor league team mates and wunderkinds, Julio Franco and Juan Samuel. The team thought with both Franco and Samuel snuggly on board they could afford to move Sandberg in a deal for Ivan Dejesus after the 2001 season. The move proved disastrous as Sandberg eventually became the best second baseman in the game and that greatness came with the Cubs and not the Phillies.
Although it is certainly premature to compare Donald to a Hall of Famer, the resemblances are strikingly similar. Both started their careers as shortstops and both had solid success within the Phillie minor league system. Both were thought to be no more than utility type infielders and both were thought not to have enough power to perform adequately at either second or third base. Sandberg proved this theory wrong and many believe Donald will eventually do the very same thing.
It now appears highly unlikely that the Phils would repeat the mistakes of their former administrative fathers [see Bill Giles] and deal away a talent such as Donald, especially with both Utley and Feliz subject to uncertainty this winter. Rather, the team appears willing to try Donald at second base and if he does well, probably move him to third base when Utley returns. This has potential long-term positive ramifications for the Phillies.
Should Jason Donald prove to be a competent major league infielder the team will be set with an all organizational infield of Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Jason Donald. It will also allow the team to achieve greater financial flexibility since the rookie Donald will cost much less in salary than the veteran Feliz. It is a story well worth watching during spring training and beyond.
General Manager Ruben Amaro mentioned both Bruntlett and Donald when discussing the possibilities should Utley not be available for the start of the '09 campaign. He did indicate that he considered it quite possible that Utley would be ready for action by the opening of the season in April but this seems very unlikely. As previously mentioned, Utley's injury is quite similar to the one suffered by Boston Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell and after surgery his recovery time was placed at about five months. This seems about correct in regards to Chase Utley and would place his return to sometime in May.
Although the Phils seem quite intent on filling Utley's role from within they still could choose to venture into the free agent market sometime this winter. Should they do so, names like Tadahito Iguchi, Nick Punto, Pablo Osuna and Damion Easley are likely to be mentioned. Iguchi has spent two tours with the Phillies and was a key replacement when Utley broke his hand in 2007. He was recently released and might not be inclined to return for a third term.
Punto is a former Phillie minor leaguer who has carved out a very nice career as a utility infielder in Minnesota with the Twins. He would fit in well with the style of play in Philadelphia but might be looking to sign with a team that can guarantee him more long-term playing time. Pablo Osuna is a defensive wizard who leaves much to be desired with the bat and would seem the least likely choice to replace a power bat like Utley's.
Damion Easley would be an interesting choice. He is a 39 year old veteran with still solid pop in the bat and a temperament well suited to the needs of the Phillies. He is playoff tested, knows the NL East well from his years with the Mets, and would probably settle for part-time play in return for the opportunity to play for a contender. The Mets have indicated only lukewarm interest in bringing Easley back to their team so that should not be a problem if the Phils decide to seek a deal with him.
The news was not all troublesome in PhillieLand this week however. The team made a trade with the Texas Rangers that could offer some much needed right-handed power to the outfield eventually. In return for former top draft pick, Greg Golson, the Phillies acquired slugging corner outfielder John Mayberry Jr., the son of former major league power hitter, John Mayberry. This deal not only protects the team a bit should Pat Burrell take his trusty bat elsewhere this winter but gives the organization some much needed power at the upper levels of the pharm system.
Mayberry Jr. was a highly sought after player out of high school and chose to forgo a major league contract for collegiate ball at Stanford University. The choice was a good one and eventually led to his being chosen in the first round [19th] by the Rangers. His rise through their system has been steady if unspectacular and he has hit 50 home runs during the past two minor league seasons. Don't be surprised if he surfaces in Philadelphia sometime during the course of the 2009 season.
Still, the news on Utley and Feliz provided a somber reminder that "uneasy is the head that has the crown." Worst case scenarios are easy to imagine in times like this, especially with an irreplaceable talent such as Chase Utley. It will be interesting to see just how the Phils deal with this week's latest news and it might well behoove them to recall the words of James Russell Lowell who once observed that "mishaps are like knives, that either serve us or cut us, as we grasp them by the blade or the handle."
They could choose to stay in-house with either Bruntlett or Donald or look outside the organization for Easley, Punto or Iguchi. In any case, none of these names are likely to emit the same confidence that does the name Chase Utley, second baseman extraordinaire. Clearly, as with numbers on Wall Street, the future shifts appear uncertain due to the announcement of a....Phil stocks dip with Utley's balky hip.
Spring Training Announcement!!! What better way to celebrate the 2008 Champions than to attend Spring Training in Clearwater, Florida with Allen Ariza [aka CD from the Left Coast]. We will spend four days, March 20-23 at the Phillies spring site, watching the team prepare to defend their title while also visiting with the players in the sun and fun that only Florida can provide. The trip will include three nights stay at a three-star local hotel, several outstanding meals, many baseball related activities, and at least two spring training games. For more information on this once in a lifetime opportunity, please e-mail me at email@example.com for more information and cost. See you in Clearwater!!!
Columnist's Note: Please e-mail all questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will respond. Thank you! CD from the Left Coast