Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Is Chase Utley Playing Hurt?

Former Phillies' closer and MLB Network broadcaster Mitch Williams thinks so.

Utley played hurt for most of last year, had surgery on a torn labrum in his hip right after the season, rehabbed in record time, and then battled a foot injury late in the season after fouling a ball off it. Utley's insistence on suffering in silence frustrated skipper Charlie Manuel, who at the time had said he wished Utley had fessed up so that he could have given the second baseman some rest. Utley, for the uninitiated, prepares more intensely on a daily basis than probably any player in the game. When you consider the nicks that baseball players suffer, that Utley gets hit by pitches an average of about 24 times a year, that he prepares hard, that he was coming off major surgery and that he plays almost every game, no wonder the second baseman might have some health and fatigue issues.

Late in the season Manuel addressed the issue by expressing his hope that the front office would sign a utility infielder who can play a bunch of games as a regular without the team's giving up a whole lot offensively or defensively, so that he can give Utley and Jimmy Rollins some more time off. One name that surfaced was that of University of Pennsylvania product Mark DeRosa, who has played well in many stops, most recently for the St. Louis Cardinals. Getting DeRosa would enable Utley to rest about 15 games a year at second, provide outfield depth and give DeRosa a chance to contribute at third base. Third baseman Pedro Feliz is going to be 35 and a free agent, and while he's generally excellent defensively and had the best average with runners in scoring position for the team this year, he has an awful on-base percentage (and always has). Adding DeRosa would help fortify the bench at a minimum (although it wouldn't answer the question about finding an above-average shortstop to spell Rollins for about 15 games a year).

Utley is a gamer and an All-Star, beloved in Philadelphia. Objectively, he hasn't been the same player since the beginning of 2008, when he got off to a torrid start, hitting about .340 early on and cementing himself in the early lead for the MVP award. Getting him fully healthy and an able backup will help him and the Phillies maximize his contributions, making him more like Ryne Sandberg (a Hall of Famer) than Pete Reiser (a would-be Hall of Famer with the Dodgers who kept on suffering injuries). That, perhaps, is not a perfect analogy, but Utley is too valuable to the team to not have some more meaningful support from the bench.

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