So When Do We Start Freaking Out About Chase Utley?
Photo courtesy St. Pete Beach Photo
Today? Perhaps tomorrow? On May 5 when Chase hasn’t had a Major League at-bat yet?
“[The knee] feels significantly better. The goal for me is to stay in one place and improve in small increments and not try to irritate it to the point where I have to slow down.”
“We talked about the transition going into spring training. The first few weeks are going to be a little slower than normal. You guys might not see me on the field on a daily basis, so don’t freak out if that happens. The whole goal is to move in a positive direction.”
Positive direction– got it.
That is why today’s update from Ruben Amaro further perplexes me about the supposedly healthyish Utley, who is most likely going to battle chronic patellar tendinitis and chondromalacia in his right knee for the rest of his career.
Amaro told beat reporters – most of whom passed along the GM's message about a player who, last year, had his “body soreness” turn into two months on the disabled list and a career-changing knee injury with little skepticism – that the Phillies have been “keeping [Utley] off his feet.”
Philly.com’s Matt Gelb and Delco Times reporter Ryan Lawrence add some color to that most cryptic of statements.
“Utley has also been elusive during workouts. He has taken regular batting practice with his teammates but rarely completed infield work. Amaro expects Utley, who is attempting to manage a chronically injured right knee, to play at some point this spring.”
Lawrence: [Delco Times]
“But it is notable that Utley's workload has seemed to decrease since camp started. He's rarely seen taking ground balls with the rest of the team during pregame batting practice.”
The fact that Utley is taking batting practice more than fielding practice isn’t surprising. His issue is irritated by flexing his knee, a movement that is less present when batting as opposed to fielding. So that makes sense. But why, then, has Chase Utley not had one at-bat during spring training? And why is there still no real timetable for his return?
Yes, Manuel, Amaro and Utley all said that Chase wouldn’t see much time at the beginning of spring training. Utley said not to “freak out.”
Got that, too.
But maybe we should freak out.
Utley opted for strengthening and rehabbing as opposed to surgery last year. Now there’s no turning back. Utley is going to deal with this injury for the rest of his career, and while decreasing his workload in spring training makes a lot of sense, it’s odd (to say the least) that, two weeks ago, a player who was “feeling better” and ready to "move in a positive direction” has, seemingly, taken a step back. A back-step. A setback?
Amaro told reporters that the Phillies would like Utley to get 30-40 at-bats before the season begins, a feat that could easily be achieved by having the second baseman hop in and out of minor league games, which begin next Monday and have no limits on substitutions.
Got that, as well.
Still, though, Utley is never going to be more well-rested than he is at the beginning of March. So why keep delaying his return to the field? Why the decrease in workload?
No one from the Phillies is denying that Utley is bothered, to some degree, by his knee problem. But, like last year, the team seems to be downplaying its severity. Chase hasn't played in a game since October, yet he still can't get an at-bat against live pitching? That doesn't make any sense.
Whatever the case, Chase admitted to not performing many strenuous leg workouts this offseason, such as squatting, an exercise that puts quite a bit of strain on any knee, let alone an irritable one. He instead opted to strengthen other muscles: his hamstrings, core and, much to the delight of ladies and most of you guys, his butt.
But, the fact that Utley will forever have to sacrifice lower-body strength to manage his knee problem is the real issue here, whether he returns tomorrow or in July. His surprising power has always come from his legs and core. You need to look no further than a ninth inning fly ball that fell just short of tying Game 5 of the NLDS as an example of how much difference a little bit of extra strength could make for a player like Utley. Strength which will likely never be present again.
And that freaks me out.