I hope Chase Utley doesn’t have anyone monitoring Philadelphia media outlets. That would be one depressing job. In two weeks we’ve gone from waiting patiently to discussing whether or not Utley has played his last productive game in a Phillies uniform. As ridiculous as all the speculation is, you can’t guarantee that Utley will be back and one hundred percent healthy. The more I hear about possible surgical repairs for this problem, and the more doctors use the term “degenerative,” the more troubling the outlook gets. You have to move forward, though, with or without Utley. They aren’t going to stop the season and wait for Chase to come back on the field. The Phillies still have a ton of money invested in the other 24 guys, and there is enough talent there that the expectations will still be to win. They are just going to have to figure out how to do it.
The Phillies scored in the neighborhood of 775 runs last year. It was enough to win them 97 games, and it was enough to get through the regular season as NL East Champions, despite being held to one run or fewer more than any team in recent Phillies history. They got by with good starting pitching, beat up the lesser teams, and closed extremely well. When Jayson Werth left, the Phillies lost one of their three best offensive players, but they didn’t lose his entire season’s worth of production. Ben Francisco is going to give you something out there. What ever that production may be, combined with better and healthier seasons from Howard, Utley and Rollins was supposed to fully make up for Werth’s departure. I think even without Mr. 126 million, most fans were expecting a similar offensive output to last season.
Utley’s injury and the possibility of losing him for the majority of the season is a much more serious issue than losing Jayson Werth. In part, because Werth is already gone, but also because the Phillies will now be down 2 of their best 3 hitters from a team that was down offensively to begin with in 2010. Without Utley the team’s offensive core will become Ryan Howard and the couple of guys who happen to be going the best at any particular moment. There’s also the drop off from Utley to Valdez, which is more significant than the drop off the Phillies will likely face in right field. Valdez may be hitting around .500 for the spring, but you are talking about a .250 hitter who won’t get to 10 homers. That’s nowhere near Utley, even on a down year. Valdez’s defense is a nice consolation prize that isn’t going to help the Phillies score any runs.
So, how are they going to get this done, especially if Utley is on pace for knee surgery?
Well, Thursday’s exhibition game against the Yankees might have offered a little bit of insight. It isn’t who was on the field, or that it was the Yankees, or anything like that, it was just the style of win that I think you will see a lot if the Phils are going to be successful this year. Roy Halladay started and gave up nothing in six innings. The Phils, who were resting Ryan Howard and Raul Ibanez, hit some balls hard off C.C. Sabathia, but couldn’t get to the big guy for any runs. Eventually the Phillies broke through, though, and they used some timely and situational hitting. I saw the Phillies successfully execute a hit-and-run. That’s not a very common occurrence. It led to their first run. Jimmy Rollins stole second to take a double play off the table. They got a couple of 2-out RBI. So, it doesn’t matter that the final score was 7-0. In a regular season game they could have been fighting against C.C. for a 1-0 or 2-1 win, but the bottom line was they executed, leaned on the pitching, and won the game.
And, that’s what it will take this year. If Chase Utley is down it will take the planets to align for this team to score 800 runs. They might struggle to score 750, but that still could be enough. Halladay, Hamels and Lee look great, Blanton looks all right and you hope that Oswalt will come back to his usual level. On offense, it may not be as dramatic, there may not be as many home runs, but some guys are starting to look a little better. Rollins and Polanco in particular today, and Ibanez had a couple of hits on Wednesday. Victorino, Howard and Francisco are consistently hitting the ball hard, so they aren’t completely without bullets. I think we just have to adjust our frame of minds a bit. If the Phils win 4-2 and crank out just 8 hits or whatever, there shouldn’t be a lament over run support, you should just realize that is the way the Phillies are going to have to win games in 2011.