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Philadelphia Phillies: Why Returns of Utley, Howard Won't Solve Problems

Alec SnyderContributor IIIDecember 22, 2014

Philadelphia Phillies: Why Returns of Utley, Howard Won't Solve Problems

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    With the exception of the last few games, this year's Philadelphia Phillies team has been difficult to watch.

    Whether it's injuries, poor performance, lack of fundamentals or a combination of the three, at times the Phillies' play has left fans just shaking their heads. The offense is lackluster, the bullpen is horrendous (save Jonathan Papelbon, no closer pun intended) and the defense for some players in the field has been atrocious, too.

    Not to mention—the injuries have taken their toll.

    David Herndon, Michael Martinez, Laynce Nix, Michael Stutes and Jim Thome are all on the DL. Justin De Fratus, who was possibly expected to break camp with the Phillies, hurt his elbow and is now on the 60-day DL. And now, Vance Worley has some elbow soreness, resulting in a skipped start.

    But what's dragged this team down the most this year has been the injuries of Ryan Howard and Chase Utley. Howard's rehabbing from a torn Achilles suffered in the last at-bat of the 2011 NLDS against the St. Louis Cardinals, while Utley is building up strength in his shoddy knees, which was an issue at the beginning of last season as well.

    When these two guys return, though, will the team necessarily get better again? Will they start to hit, to field, to have a stronger bullpen once more? Or will they continue their downward trend, and will we see the Phillies trade away one or two of their top players?

    I'm here to tell you that the return of the Phillies' three and four-hole hitters is not going to guarantee the team success at that point.

    Could success happen? Sure. But is it set in stone? No. And here's why.

No Guaranteed Hitting Success After Recovery

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    Does Howard and Utley returning at some point necessarily mean that they'll both still produce at the plate?

    Think about it this way: The lineup has struggled in their absence. Making Hunter Pence the cleanup hitter is far from an ideal situation, and with the exception of home runs, it's taken a toll on his numbers this year. Pence's average is .255, well below his career average of .291, and his OBP is .301 compared to .341 for Pence throughout the years.

    In addition to that, Pence has been dropping routine fly balls and has been playing awful defense out in right field. Whether that's related is debatable, but it could mean that his hitting woes have mentally affected him as well.

    The rest of the lineup has suffered without their core three and four hitters playing in Utley and Howard. The hope has been that with their presence in the lineup, the team will regain its lost confidence and play like the Phillies teams of the last five years.

    That's fine.

    But when Howard and Utley return from their injuries, will they contribute to the same degree as they once did?

    There's no guarantee of that, either. An Achilles surgery can shorten the repaired tendon, and if that's the case with Howard, not only might he not hit as well as before, but his entire play could be affected because he might not be able to walk without a slight limp. And then there's Utley, who had a similar issue last year and we saw his average for the season dip down to just .259 and his OPS hit rock bottom at .769. That, and his defense could go downhill, as that's often what takes the highest toll on Utley's knees due to his style of play.

    So, with the returns of Utley and Howard, are they themselves even guaranteed a full recovery stat-wise? Absolutely not. Just because they return to the field doesn't mean they'll return in tip-top shape.

Preexisting Regression

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    Even when Utley and Howard were playing, they still were not as good as they both once were.

    In the case of the Big Piece, it all started when he sprained his ankle sliding back into second base in August of 2010. One could also say it's been since he inked his five-year, $125 million extension in April of that year. Either one works. Regardless, since 2010, Howard has not hit like his usual self (or rather, like the Howard we used to know).

    Since his MVP season in which he slugged 58 home runs, Howard hit comfortably in the 40s through 2009. However, when 2010 rolled around, he lost his touch—the drop of 45 to 31 home runs in a season was drastic. And with 33 last year in a relatively healthy season, it worried fans that Howard's 40-plus home run days were behind him.

    Although his average has gone up over the last few seasons (except for last year), his OPS has been dropping as well. Not good.

    Then you get to Chase Utley.

    Whether 2007 or 2008 was his best career season is in the eye of the beholder (I'd give 2007 the edge because he hit over 20 home runs and sustained a .332 average and .976 OPS on the year). Since 2009, though, not only has Utley not played in over 115 games in a season, but his batting average—which had never been under .282 by a season's end—was .275 in 2010.

    Last year, playing in just 103 games thanks to his first bout of knee weakness, Utley hit just .259. His OPS went from being above .900 in 2009 to being below .775 in 2011. Utley also slugged 31 long balls in 2009.

    His home run total in 2010 and 2011 combined? 27. Also not good.

    If we assumed that Utley and Howard both returned at 100 percent recovery, that doesn't mean that they themselves would be 100 percent at the plate. Given their aging and their already-shown regression, there's little reason to see how they could sustain top-level play like they once did.

No Other Lineup Support

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    Howard and Utley returning are supposed to bring back strength to the lineup. Fantastic.

    But let's say that all of the above happens. Let's say that Howard isn't hitting home runs or for average, and Utley isn't hitting the ball much past the infield and beginning of the outfield grass.

    What now?

    The Phillies lineup in their game against the Houston Astros yesterday consisted of Jimmy Rollins, Juan Pierre, Shane Victorino, Hunter Pence, Placido Polanco, John Mayberry, Jr., Freddy Galvis and Brian Schneider. And for all intents and purposes, we'll include Carlos Ruiz and Ty Wigginton in here as well, since they're both usual starters.

    Take a look at that list of players above. I want you to go to that list and name for me three possible players who could support the lineup if Howard and Utley fail.

    Pence can't do it, as we've seen from his performance without them even in the lineup at all. Victorino is more of a lead-off or a five-hole hitter than a three or four, and even in that sense he's not a guy to support the rest of the batting order.

    So...aside from those two, really who else is there to choose from?

    If Howard and Utley don't come back able to do their jobs in being the heart of the batting order and supporting the rest of the offense, then this team's in tons more trouble then they are now. Howard would be under contract for years hitting as a pathetic cleanup hitter (or possibly elsewhere) and Utley wouldn't even be able to hit in his premier s three-hole spot.

    If Howard and Utley can't hit, and if they can't support the lineup, who else will? That could spell trouble for the rest of this team, and in more than just the immediate future.

Other Problems

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    Howard and Utley returning solves the offensive problems. But what about the team's other struggles?

    The bullpen has been horrendous this season. The Phillies' relief ERA is last in the majors and it seems as though almost any bullpen pitcher toeing up the mound is a surefire bet to surrender at least one run in his outing.

    Jose Contreras, who's coming off what was dubbed an "exploratory" elbow surgery, has pitched without any finesse. Chad Qualls, who's pictured on this slide, had a nice couple of weeks to start out in April. But since then? He's been as bad as the rest of them.

    David Herndon has struggled. Kyle Kendrick has underperformed. Antonio Bastardo is not the same pitcher he was for most of 2011. Stutes wasn't good before hitting the DL, and Brian Sanches was underwhelming in his brief stint with the Phillies.

    The only guy who's performed to expectations has been Jonathan Papelbon, and even he's being used in the wrong situations (though that's not his fault).

    Then there's the defensive woes.

    Hunter Pence has dropped fly balls like it's an everyday thing. Ty Wigginton hasn't had a stellar glove at first, though that was to be expected. Placido Polanco has had an error or two, as has Jimmy Rollins. These defensive mistakes cost teams ballgames, as Pence's fly ball almost did yesterday. It's a problem.

    With Utley's steady glove and Howard's experience at first base (though he lacks top-notch first base defense), that part could slightly improve. But the rest of it is dependent on solely the individual, and if this team can't play fundamental baseball, then there's going to be some problems down the road.

What Does It All Boil Down To?

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    Ryan Howard and Chase Utley could both be back either sometime later this month or the next. When exactly it'll be is anyone's guess. But will their returns solve problems already created by this Phillies team?

    Not necessarily, no.

    In Utley and Howard's cases, their own hitting isn't sure to improve. Their careers are already on a downward trend. And with the way the rest of the team is hitting and pitching (excluding the starters and Papelbon), this team is in trouble. Deep, deep trouble.

    There are more problems than are being made clear, and that will be more evident upon the lackluster returns of Howard and Utley. This team needs an impact bat, but they lack the assets to get a deal done. And even if they went after a Kevin Youkilis-type—a player who could be had for little—he's not even a guarantee to stay healthy.

    After a certain point, it may be time to just consider the season a lost cause. I'm not saying that's now, and I'm not saying that after June the Phillies would be in the same position. But if there's anything to keep in mind, it's that this team needs help, and whether than comes from better play, an acquisition at the trade deadline or the selling off of players to get players for the future, the Phillies will take anything and anyone they can get.

    This team has more problems on its hands than it knows what to do with. Let's just hope that Utley and Howard returning eases the pain.

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