Chase Utley's degenerative knee condition is keeping him from most spring training activities. What does that mean for him and the Phillies in 2012?
It's a good question. A question on the minds of baseball writers. A question on the minds of baseball fans. A question keeping Phillies fans up at night.
So where is Chase Utley?
Utley is at the Phillies' spring-training camp in Clearwater, Florida. (Well, if you're reading this at night, he's probably left Bright House Field and is either eating, relaxing, or sleeping). But he hasn't played in any of the Phillies' four spring-training games so far and won't play in any spring-training games in the near future, according to Phillies skipper Charlie Manuel. He's participating in batting practice, but not every day. He hasn't done any fielding drills; no grounders, no pop ups, nothing.
What's going on?
Remember that Utley missed all of spring training and the first 46 games of the 2011 season with a right knee injury? And not just any right knee injury. As described by ESPN's injury expert Stephania Bell, "Utley has degenerative changes in his patellofemoral joint and those changes are not reversible." What does that mean? More from Bell:
A closer look at the medical terms tells us that Utley is dealing with a complex issue with three contributing elements. Patellar tendinitis, literally speaking, refers to inflammation of the patellar tendon (the large tendon that anchors the quadriceps muscle on the front of the thigh to the tibia, or shinbone) and is used to generically describe various stages of the condition.
The tendon actually starts to undergo structural changes where the tissue becomes thicker and more fibrotic. . . . The tendon, unlike the muscle it anchors, does not have a good blood supply, so it becomes less structurally sound and less capable of performing its function.
Chondromalacia refers to the weakening or damage of cartilage and is not uncommon on the undersurface of the patella (kneecap). In and of itself, this is not a source of pain, but in the event that the cartilage surface erodes so that bone is exposed (cartilage is the protective lining on the ends of bone that protects the joint surfaces), the bone can become extremely painful. The presence of bone inflammation in Utley's knee suggests that the cartilage damage is extensive enough to create a reaction of the bone itself.
Surgery wasn't an option. Instead, Utley went through rigorous strength training, stretching, and physical therapy to ease the pain and inflammation. He played in 103 games, batting .259/.344/.425 with 11 home runs, 14 stolen bases, and a 114 wRC+ (runs created adjusted for league and park). Very good numbers for a second baseman, but well below Utley's career averages.
This year, the Phillies are taking a very cautious approach with Utley as he prepares his right knee -- and the rest of his body -- for the rigors of the coming season. They have no other choice, as Sports Illustrated's injury expert Will Carroll explains:
It's also not a problem that's going away, now or probably until Utley decides to have that knee replaced. Utley may have regained some strength this offseason, which could help both his power and his speed stats. Still, he's very risky.
Utley says the knee feels better than it did this time last year, and asks fans and the media not to "freak out." Listen for yourself. Here's Utley talking about the situation during the first week of spring training:
The go-slow approach with Utley makes a lot of sense. His knee condition may keep him from superstar production this season -- and in the future -- but even a less-than-100-percent Utley is better than most second basemen in the majors. He's critical to the Phillies' success this season.
Indeed, the Phillies won't have the flexibility they had last season for replacing Utley on his days off. Utility infielder Wilson Valdez is gone (traded to the Reds in January), making Michael Martinez the backup at second base. Martinez was dreadful last season, batting .196/.258/.282 in 88 games. Martinez will also spell relief for third baseman Placido Polanco, who's coming off hernia surgery, and shortstop Jimmy Rollins, who at 33 will probably need a day off here and there throughout the season. And then there's the first-base situation: mixing and matching Jim Thome, John Mayberry, and Ty Wigginton while waiting for Ryan Howard to return from surgery to repair a torn achilles tendon.
The less we see of Utley now, the more we'll see more of him later. That seems to be the plan, anyway.