Life Without Howard and Utley — The Dead Ball Phillies?

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Before we start, it’s “Gal-vees” not “Gal-viss” apparently.  These are things you learn when a prospect finally spends some time in Major League camp, but Phillies fans are going to have to learn a lot more about Galvis (or a new 2nd baseman), because Chase Utley has left camp to see a specialist for knee treatment and will not be in the opening day lineup.  Fans like Galvis well enough, I’m just not sure they’re ready for him to step in and play for Chase Utley.  Especially when the more optimistic among us were hoping Utley could bounce back a bit from an injury riddled 2011 season.

No one should be surprised that this is the news regarding Utley.  The Phillies’ tight-lipped, NHL playoff-sytle approach toward reporting injuries only increases speculation in my opinion.  Their track record of down-playing the severity of injuries that various players have faced over the years tends to make people expect the worst.  But, there they were, saying over and over again that Chase would be ready for Opening Day.  As recently as last week, Ruben said he had “no doubt” about Utley’s status.  We now know that it was posturing, and the fact that Utley was doing less work on March 10th than he was doing on February 10th was probably all you needed to know.  To the surprise of no one, who the specialist is, where he is, or what the treatment might possibly be have not been discussed.

I know there’s a small group of people out there are hoping, or suggesting Utley take the trip to Germany for the magical blood injection.  If you’re a golf fan, you may have heard the term Orthokine therapy.  A doctor in Dusseldorf is given credit for helping Vijay Singh, Fred Couples and recently helped Hank Kuehne return to the tour after several years.  In those cases, it was always a back issue, but the doctor and Orthokine got even more publicity when Kobe Bryant not only had the treatment for his ankle and knee, but endorsed it to Alex Rodriguez.  From what I read on the process, its biggest benefit is in arthritis treatment.  The Phillies revealed today that Utley has pain in both knees and they’re calling it cartilage issues and tendonitis.  So, what I’m saying is, I’m not expecting any Utley sightings in Germany, and those in the miracle cure business–back to work.  Though, what would a quick plasma injection hurt at this point?

The news on Utley brings to the forefront the possibility of playing the majority of the season without him in the lineup and considering Ryan Howard’s recent infection and setback, he may miss the bulk of the season as well.  How can the Phillies possibly survive without Howard and Utley in the middle of the order?   During the off-season, the Phillies took some stop-gap measures at 1st base (Wigginton/Thome/Nix), but by sending Wilson Valdez to Cincinnati, they no longer have an obvious long-term replacement for Utley.  Enter Freddy Galvis.  Galvis is a player with limited experience above AA, and a bat was that was questioned as a shortstop.  Now he’s to replace a #3 hitter?  Amaro said the Phillies are moving forward with Galvis, but that could be to try to salvage a shred of trading leverage.  The omniscient Buster Olney, came up with this list of trade possibilities this morning:

  1. Blake DeWitt 25yrs old (Cubs): .265, 5 HR, 26 RBI, .718 OPS
  2. Maicer Izturis 31yrs old (Angels): .276, 5HRs, 38 RBI, .722 OPS
  3. Alberto Callaspo 28yrs old (Angels): .288, 6HRs, 46 RBI, .740 OPS

As you can see, the market isn’t exactly flush.  For reference, those numbers are not drastically different from what Galvis put up last year at AA and AAA.  And, Chase Utley’s OPS last season (his worst) was .769.  For his career, it’s .882.  Losing Utley could be the final reminder of how good Phillies fans had it from 2005-2010.  For those crafting the trade for David Wright/move Polanco back to 2nd rumors, there’s no chance that’s happening right now.  First, Wright himself isn’t healthy, but also his salary is probably too prohibitive to acquire until a later point in the season.

If I was guessing, I would say that will be the Phillies’ strategy.  Wait and see, and hope to get by.  Amaro on the offense today, “we’re going to have to pitch and play defense.”  Meaning, the Phillies aren’t going to magically score 800 runs this year and I hope you like some pitcher’s duels.  So, what the hell is the Phillies lineup going to look like?

As foolish as it may sound, I actually trust Ruben when he says Galvis is the 2nd baseman moving forward.  The reason is, the Phillies cannot afford to make errors the way the team is shaping up.  The team has a lot of guys who “can” play multiple positions, but do they play them well?  This Spring we’ve seen our share of butcher jobs.  If you are going to try to make 3 or 4 runs stand up every night, you can’t spot the other team a run or two.  The Phillies best defensive alignment would have Mayberry at 1st, Galvis at 2nd, and then Nix or perhaps the Pierre/Podsednik winner in left field.  I think there will be days when you see that lineup, but it’s going to change day-to-day.  If someone like Nix or Wigginton is swinging a hot bat, they’ll be squeezed in there.  If Thome can muster 9 innings in the field, you know Charlie will pencil him in there.  I’m guessing the Phillies will play 3 or 4 different lineups a week.

How big of a blow is this to the Phillies long-term prospects?  Well, I do think some people overestimate the amount of runs you need to score to be successful in the National League these days.  Obviously, a lot of the room for error is going to be eliminated for the pitchers, but I don’t see any reason to think the Phillies staff is suddenly going to balloon to a 5.00 ERA.  If the Phillies can pitch near the level they did last year, some pertinent stats:

1.  Through 82 games last year, the Phillies were 51-31.  They scored 4.01 runs a game in those 82 contests.

2.  The last 80 games of the year they went 51-29.  They scored 4.8 runs a game in those 80 contests.

3.  The Phillies allowed 3.20 runs a game in the 1st 82, and 3.32 runs a game in the last 80.

The point being, the better you pitch, the less benefit you get from scoring a ton of runs.  The numbers are bit misleading, because of the Phillies’ post-clinch swoon.  They got a little more than a 1-game benefit from their boosted offense, but you could also say we’re talking about a team that could have easily won 105 games last year instead of 102, gives an even better idea of how far ahead they were in the division last season.

You have to remember that level of dominance is not required, nor an indicator of post-season success.  The pitching wins argument has been a tough sell in Philadelphia after the last two years, but it did produce a World Series champion in San Francisco just two years ago.  The 2010 Giants mustered only 4.3 runs a game, in a slightly more productive offensive year, and surrendered 3.6 runs–both of those numbers were bettered by the 2011 Phillies.  And, last season, the Giants won 86 games while scoring 3.51 runs a game–an absurdly low number.  Do the Phillies want to win 86 games or score 3.51 runs a night?  No, but that’s a good indication of exactly how far pitching can take you.

Now, I still don’t things are as bad as they might seem.  When people think about replacing Howard and Utley they think about replacing their peak production.  It’s been a while since they produced those numbers, so the task of replacing the numbers they put up last season (especially in Utley’s case) isn’t as daunting.  Ty Wigginton himself had similar numbers to Chase Utley last year.  If you combine Laynce Nix’s numbers against righties and Mayberry’s against lefties, they hit 24 homers in 440 plate appearances.  That’s some convenient math and the mess of bench-type players the Phillies have brought in are going to have to produce, but there’s a little bit of hope that the team can at least survive for a while.  The early season schedule is favorable, there’s a still a chance that Utley and/or Howard could return at some point and as the trade deadline approaches, the chance of making a real move increases.

It’s been a pretty tough Spring Training for the Phillies, but not all is lost.  The Phils have a couple more weeks of pre-season action and then we’ll get going for real and see what we’ve got with this team.  It’s going to look different from last year, and unrecognizable compared to 2008, but don’t put your full season ticket plan on Stubhub just yet.

 

 

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