Scouting the Phillies: Utley injury early concern

Chase Utley’s injury has dominated news out of the Phillies camp in Clearwater, Fla., early in March, according to Matt Gelb, who covers the team for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Utley is nursing patellar tendinitis in his right knee, and the team is not sure when he is going to play.

A few Nationals fans wonder if the Phillies miss Jayson Werth so far in spring training? Former Phillies standout Mike Schmidt thinks they are going to really miss him, but Gelb says for most of the players, Werth is kind of out of sight, out of mind. “It is actually interesting in that regard,” Gelb noted.

The big position battle in camp is in right field to replace the spot vacated by Werth. Veteran Ben Francisco is taking on youngster Domonic Brown to start in right.

It has been only three games, but Francisco has gotten off to a good start in the spring, going 4-for-7 with four RBIs while Brown has sputtered, going 0-for-9 with six strikeouts. Brown has played all of 35 games in his career with a .210 average and is expected to be the heir apparent to Werth.

“They are trying to give Brown every opportunity to win it,” Gelb said. “If he doesn’t, Francisco would probably get the majority of the playing time.”

Regardless of who finally wins the right field battle, the Phillies will need their other big bats to help out without Werth on the roster.

“They are not going to get the production they got out of Werth in right field this year,” Gelb said. “They need Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Raul Ibanez, Utley and Shane Victorino to pick up some of that slack. Right now they think that can happen.”

Does the team still think about what happened against the Giants in the N.L. Championship Series? Is that a huge motivating factor to begin 2011? The vaunted Phillies offense was practically shut down by the powerful Giants pitching.

“The perception that they didn’t score a lot last season kind of comes from the fact that they didn’t score in that much in the six-game series at all,” Gelb contends. “They were really second to only the Reds in runs scored in the National League and that was with pretty much every regular, except for Jayson Werth and Raul Ibanez, on the disabled list at some point during the season.”

Gelb said the Phillies are optimistic they can repeat in 2011 because they believe with normal seasons from Howard, Rollins and Utley, the offense will be fine.

That is with a healthy Utley.

“They say Utley is day-to-day, but there is no timetable for him to start playing,” Gelb reports. “It seems like it is a chronic problem in his knee. He says he has played with it before. The guy is 32 years old. You start to wonder, is he starting to break down? He plays a tough position. It is rough on his body. The one caveat this spring is ‘We are going to be really, really good as long as we stay healthy.’ They have the oldest team in the majors. That is something that could go wrong for them this season.”

But time is on the Phillies’ side, and just like holding out an All-Pro quarterback until the season begins, the Phillies can be careful in deciding when Utley sees the field.

“They have the luxury because it is early,” Gelb said. “They would rather sit Utley now than sit him in June. Even if he only plays in the final two weeks of the spring, I don’t think they are going to lose too much sleep over it. He is 32 and you figure he doesn’t need a terrible amount of hitting here in the spring.
He is not going to run, he is not going to field right now. They think rest will heal it. If it doesn’t, then you start to really wonder because they really don’t have anyone to play second base behind him really.”

Everyone knows the Cliff Lee signing was the biggest Phillies news over the winter.

So are there battles for relief pitching spots? As far as pitchers, they have a couple of younger relievers they are looking at this spring. Gelb said they may not make the team out of camp, but the Phillies won’t go the whole season using just 12 pitchers, so they are going to need somebody. Gelb said three pitchers will battle for a spot on the 25-man during March warmups.

“Justin De Fratus, Michael Stutes and Vance Worley (who pitched for the Phillies late last season) are all younger guys who are all going to get really good looks in spring,” Gelb said. “If they don’t make the opening day roster they are guys who could get definitely see some time during the season if someone gets hurt during the season.”

Gelb admits it is amazing to walk in the clubhouse and see Lee, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels all sitting at the same table.

“It is pretty surreal,” Gelb said. “When you are in the clubhouse and you see the four guys sitting there eating breakfast, a couple of the other pitchers come and sit there and joke that they are basically sitting with pitching royalty and they don’t belong at the table.

“Joe Blanton jokes about it too. He is kind of the odd man in that rotation and he is still not a bad pitcher. He is probably the best No. 5 starter in baseball. There is this buzz and this hype about these guys. If they stay healthy, you wonder how much they can accomplish.”

Injuries are the one thing that can hurt any team, regardless of how good they are expected to be. With the early injury to Utley, there is concern in the Phillies clubhouse about avoiding injuries - not only position players but for their pitching staff as well.

“You see (Cardinals pitcher) Adam Wainwright throw a bullpen session and he needs Tommy John surgery,” Gelb said. “Pitching is very fragile. One bad day and one of those guys could be gone. The roster is phenomenal. But they are old and they are susceptible to injuries. That is the one thing that could really derail this team.”

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