Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Would The Real Chase Utley Please Stand Up?

Like most Phillies fans, I lived for Harry Kalas play by play calls. There were so many favorites. My personal favorite of all time was the Mike Schmidt 500th home run call against the Pirates. I know exactly where I was and remember hearing it and running outside to make sure my dad heard it too. Right up there with that call is the "Chase Utley, YOU ARE THE MAN!" call ( I loved everything about the call. It was hip, it was spontaneous and it was a bit out of the box for Harry who liked his coined phrases.

Soon after Utley scored from second on that weak grounder to the pitcher which caused that praise from Harry, Chase Utley was cemented as a legend in Philadelphia. He had always played "the right way". He always hustled, he never asked for a day off and frankly for a few years, he put up numbers comparable to the greatest second basemen of all time.
The only problem was that his statistics had already started to decline by 2009. Since he had become the full time starter in 2005, Utely hadn't hit below .291. However, from 2009-2011, he hit .282, .275, and .259 respectively. Power numbers had a similar decline with his slugging percentage going .508, .445, .425 during the same span.
So were we just witnessing a 30 year old experiencing a normal decline or was this the result of a chronic knee problem?  In 2011, at the start of spring training, we found out that he was struggling with a sore right knee.  Some fancy unpronounceable condition that surgery would likely only make worse. This kept him out of the lineup until May 23rd. He played the rest of the season and just wasn't himself as noted by the stats above. However, entering into the offseason, many thought the time off would provide him the rest he needed to come back in 2012 possibly stronger with the ability to properly strengthen his legs.
Then the bombshell hit at the start of 2012 spring training that his left knee was bothering him. This news disseminated out of camp at a snail’s pace. Was it the Phillies putting the cork on the information or Utley himself? As we have come to learn, Utley was not only keeping the information quiet from the media, he was not being open with his condition to the ball club. The Phil’s management was just as surprised that he would end up missing the first 76 games. At times when Ruben Amaro Jr. would speak to the media, he sounded as distraught at his lack of knowledge of how Utley felt and his overall condition as the situation itself.  Was all of this just Utley's crusty personality or is something more sinister?
One of my favorite Eagles as a kid was Mike Quick. He was tall, fast and could out work his opponents for the ball. However, he also was very well known for not being much of a fan of training camp or practice. Is it possible that for all of the love that we have bestowed on Utley for his work ethic over the years, he might be one of those players too? Might he just want to play 90-100 games per year instead of 162 at this stage in his career on achy knees?
One thing is bound to be sure starting tonight. This is the first time there are at least a few doubters out there about him as a warrior and whether he still has top level ability. He also is carrying expectations, mostly by himself for the time being, to get this team back on track. The legend that was cemented by Harry when he certainly was the man might be in jeopardy. However, the great thing about sports is that the games are played on the field and we will find out in the next few months who Chase Utley really is.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Rube, Where Are You?

As this 2012 Phillies season nears the halfway point, I am searching for proof that their General Manager is still alive and well. Other than the every few days health update for the walking wounded, do we have any proof that Ruben Amaro Jr. is actually still doing his job?

This season certainly hasn't gone the way anybody thought it would, especially Amaro Jr. When he traded Wilson Valdez back in January, he certainly couldn't have known that Chase Utley had a bad enough left knee that he would not play a game prior to June 27th. He couldn't have thought that through June 26th, Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee would have 4 wins between them and Halladay would be on the 15 day DL. He couldn't have thought that Ryan Howard would still barely be running on June 25th after needing a second surgery on his repaired achilles tendon. He couldn't possibly think that, other than Jonathan Papelbon, the bullpen would have a combined ERA of 4.84 which ranks 29th in MLB.

Certainly Amaro Jr. can't take the blame then for the Phillies being nine games out after 74 games played, right? Well, let's examine the details of that 4.84 ERA from the bullpen. Amaro Jr. Went out and signed Papelbon to a 4 year 50 million dollar contract in the offseason, a record contract for a reliever. Other than him struggling in non save situations, he has been very good. He also brought in journeyman Chad Qualls to be a set-up man. This move has proved disasterous, as Qualls has struggled mightily in the first half. Antonio Bastardo has also struggled trying to adapt from a lefty specialist to a full 7th or 8th inning man. They have also had multiple season ending injuries to guys like Michael Stutes, David Herndon, and Jose Contreras.

This is where Amaro Jr. comes in. At a time where the team desperately needs a morale boost. Just when like Utley is coming back and Howard not too far either, this team needs badly to rely on its management to provide that boost. Not just in morale but in wins. Strong teams are won at the back end of the bullpen. Take Sunday's early game for example. Cole Hamels pitched very well for 7 innings. Charlie Manual was hoping to get Qualls and Bastardo through the 8th and have Papelbon close it out in the 9th. Bastardo proceeded to walk two and then give up a three run homer. This led to losing both ends of a double header and the series loss.

The bullpen deficency has been present all season, it's not new. Amaro Jr. needs to go out a get some help. Not from Jake Diekman, who appears to have good stuff, but clearly needs more minor league seasoning. He needs to go get a Brett Myers or another experienced arm. But this should have been done a month ago before 4-5 games have been given away at the hands of this deficient bullpen. Has the contract to Papelbon prevented the financial flexibility of years past to allow such moves? Only the GM knows why he has yet to act in attempt to save this sinking ship.

Now, as Halladay and Utley and Howard all start to come back and the real possibilty of the team stringing wins together, the reality of Manual having no one to go to between starter and Papelbon very well may prevent the seventh straight postseason for the Phils. Ruben Amaro Jr. has had and still has a chance to change that by making the first move(s) by imrpoving the bullpen immediately.

Rube, as one famous sports figure in this town loves to say, the time is yours. The only problem is that it is very quickly running out for 2012.