March 8, 2011

What should we expect from Chase Utley?

He's smacked 177 homers and accrued 650 RBIs as a member of the Philadelphia Phillies. His .293/.380/.514 career line is stellar for almost any hitter, let alone a second baseman. And his trophy rack is already packed: Five All-Star Games, four Silver Slugger awards and, of course, one unforgettable slogan.

He's also been hit by 94 pitches in the last four years and played in only 115 games last season. He's 32 years old, and he aggressively plays a demanding position.

So what should Phillies fans expect from Chase Utley in 2011 and beyond?

That's hard to say. According to Baseball-Reference.com, his most similar comparison through age 31 is Jeff Kent. Kent had a line of .334/.424/.596 at age 32, and he even hit .289 with 29 homers at age 37.

Then again, Kent is one of the best offensive 2B of all time, a possible Hall of Famer (and apparently a giant asshole). As good as Utley's been since his first full season in 2005, he's got quite a ways to go before he even comes close to Kent's success or his longevity (2298 games and 377 homers, as compared to Chase's 1006 and 177).

But most Phillies fans aren't worried about how Chase's career plays out, or where he'll rank among the best second basemen of all time. They're worried about 2011 and 2012, about the years when Ryan Howard, Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay and Shane Victorino are all in their respective primes.

The Phillies as a whole aren't particularly young. Dom Brown's a super-stud prospect and Cole Hamels is only 27, but the rest of their stars are aging or aged. After four straight division titles and the return of Cliff Lee, it's officially World Series or bust for Charlie Manuel's boys.

But they can't do it without Chase. It's pretty widely accepted that this is now a pitching-oriented team, but they'll still need to be in the top four or five in runs if they want to make a serious title push. They were second in the NL last year, but only slightly ahead of young teams like Colorado and Milwaukee. They'll likely get better; the Phillies, especially sans Jayson Werth, will probably get worse.

And Chase's tendinitis sure isn't helping. It sounds like it could be a chronic ailment, which makes it all the more worrisome. If he doesn't get at least 20 at-bats in the spring, he'll likely start the season on the DL. Then, unless we're seeing marked improvement, this dull hum of concern becomes a full-fledged roar.

But it's April, and there's a long, long season ahead. If he can get on the field for 130+ games this year, he'll be a top 2B, and the Phillies offense will supply the Big Four and Joey B with enough ammo to win. Maybe he won't touch 30 homers or 100 RBIs, but expecting those numbers just shows how high our standards are. We've been blessed with an all-world player for years now, and it will be tough to accept his inevitable decline.

So maybe there's no batting title or MVP award in Chase's future. Maybe the fact that no one from the team is talking about his injury is a terrifying harbinger of things to come. Or maybe Utley, like most pro athletes, just got a little dinged-up at the wrong time. 32 isn't young, but you know what? It's not very old, either. And if anyone's going to make asshole bloggers like me regret calling him "on the decline," it's Chase Utley.

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