Spring training has arrived and Chase Utley is healthy. Of course, we’re not quite sure what “healthy” means for Utley. He’s missed significant chunks of time in each of the past 3 seasons because of degenerative knee problems, and they aren’t going away any time soon. Nevertheless, Utley is optimistic about his conditioning and health for the Phillies’ upcoming campaign.
It’s possible that Utley hasn’t been fully healthy since the beginning of 2008. He played through much of 2008 with a torn labrum in his right hip, suffered through knee pain in 2009, and spent time on the disabled list in 2010, 2011, and 2012, mostly due to knee issues. These ailments have affected his swing, limiting the strength he generates from his lower half and consequently sapping his power. It’s not that crazy to wonder whether we’re approaching the end of Utley’s time as an elite second baseman — and perhaps even as a major leaguer, if his injuries are serious enough to force him into an early retirement.
But, if his 2012 numbers are any indication, the gritty California native can still hang with the game’s top-tier middle infielders: he managed to put up 3.2 fWAR in just 83 games, which translates to nearly 6 fWAR over a 150 game pace. UZR still seems to like him defensively, too, an encouraging sign that his knees feel good when he’s able to take the field. That’s not to say he’s still a 6 fWAR player, of course, because he still hasn’t been able to put a full, healthy season together for a few years. However, Utley could still be a very valuable contributor to a Phillies team that will need all the help it can get in 2013.
Barring a mid-season contract extension, Utley will likely become a free agent after this season. His future with the Phillies is unclear at this point; the team would probably like to keep him around, especially for clubhouse and public relations purposes, although his aforementioned health issues make a long-term deal a significant risk. A mid-season trade is also a realistic possibility, in the case that Utley decides he’ll likely sign elsewhere for 2014 and beyond.
Just as with Ryan Howard, the phrase “cautious optimism” best describes Utley’s situation as he heads into his contract year; both he and the organization hope his balky knees will not be a concern this season. He’s still just 34 years old, and a pain-free year (though I’m not betting on one) could see Utley reemerge as one of the better all-around talents in baseball, especially among second basemen.
Projections: .280, 21 HR, 75 RBI, 78 R, 18 SB