Will Utley and Howard dominate again in 2013?
Ryan Howard and Chase Utley's best days are behind them. That much we know for certain.
Age and injury have turned the pair of former MVP candidates into players who are good, but no longer great.
Their absence from the lineup for nearly half of the 2012 season and subsequent subpar production is as good an excuse as any for the Phillies' disappointing 77-74 record.
The first and second basemen have anchored the lineup for years. Can we expect them to bounce back in 2013? Will Utley's knees hold up over the long haul? Can Howard cut down on the strikeouts and reestablish himself as a feared cleanup hitter?
The trends for both players don't look great. Even before Howard ruptured his Achilles tendon on the final play of the Phillies' 2011 season, he was headed in the wrong direction.
Howard hasn't hit more than 33 home runs in a season since 2009. His average has dropped each year as well. While he's still working himself back from the Achilles injury, he's struck out nearly one out of every three plate appearances this season. His career OPS against left-handed pitching is .740, and he's hit .176 against lefties this year.
And that's just his offense. Defensively, Howard is a well-below-average first baseman who lacks range, a quick glove and even an adequate throwing arm.
He's on the books for $95 million through 2016, so he's certainly not going anywhere.
I'd expect Howard to work hard in the offseason and come back on a mission. Unfortunately, he simply doesn't have the physical tools he once possessed. There's no way all of that bat speed is coming back.
Look for Howard to hit 35 home runs next year and drive in 100 runs. If he can improve his plate discipline and figure out a way to deal with lefties, he could exceed expectations.
The analysis of Utley is trickier, as the production is still there. But can he stay on the field? Will he be ready for the start of 2013?
Despite knee issues that have sapped some of his pop, he is still a premier second baseman. He is far ahead of last year's offensive pace and is back to hitting the ball with authority. He's reaching base with regularity as well, and his .382 OBP is right in line with his career .377 mark.
While the Phillies have kicked around the idea of moving Utley to third base next year to make room for Freddy Galvis, the defensive metrics show he is still covering plenty of ground at second.
Utley will earn $15 million in 2013, the final year of his contract. It will be interesting to see whether the Phillies try to extend him soon or wait until after next season and they are assured of his health.
Utley has stolen nine bases this year, which is an excellent sign after some thought his career could be over. Gone are the days of 30 home runs and 40 doubles, but I have a feeling he could bounce back big in 2013 based on his play of late. Whether he does that next to Howard or at the opposite corner will be the question.