Will Chase Utley be healthy enough in 2013 to give the Phillies a chance to catch those Nationals?
Chase Utley is in a no-win situation in 2013 because of his contract situation, his injury history and his lack of production in the past two seasons.
Utley is in the final year of a seven-year, $85 million contract. As so often happens with long-term deals, Utley's production has waned precipitously over the past six seasons. From 2007-2010 (the first four years of the contract) Utley made the All-Star team every season. He earned MVP votes in each of those seasons but 2010, which was also the first year that Utley's knees became a concern.
When Utley missed 47 games in 2010, it was the team's first real indication that maybe, just maybe, Utley's body would not let him be the player he had been again, like, ever.
By spring training in 2011, it was apparent that Utley's knees were degenerating, the sort of injury that often cannot be fixed by surgery. He missed 59 games in 2011; because he came back in time for the playoffs, his absence was noticeable, but ultimately easy to forget.
Less so in 2012, as the Phillies' five-year playoff run came to an end while Utley played only four more games (83) than he missed (79.) Perhaps more alarming was Utley's nose-diving production. From 2005 through 2008, Utley drove in more than 100 runs every year, hit no fewer than 22 home runs, hit no worse than .291 and scored more than 100 runs three times, including a league-leading 131 runs scored in 2006.
So it is not just the games he is missing that now trouble the Phillies, it is what he is (not) doing when he plays: eleven home runs in each of the past two seasons, 44 and 45 runs batted in, batting averages of .259 and .256. Sure, he is consistent now. It is just consistent mediocrity.
And this is why Utley's coming contract year is such a problem. Utley will no doubt be heavily motivated to "prove he is healthy" and post numbers sufficient to convince the Phillies, or some other team, to give him another multi-year deal. Maybe he can do it, too.
If he does it, though, the Phillies and their fans will almost certainly question openly why he was able to do it in 2013 when he was not able to do it in 2011 or 2012. Particularly this past season, when Ryan Howard missed so much time with his Achilles injury, the Phillies desperately missed Utley's bat in the middle of the lineup. Have his numbers declined? Sure. But he is still miles better than Freddy Galvis, Michael Martinez, Mike Fontenot and Pete Orr.
Utley's worst-case scenario, of course, is having a year productive enough to get him signed elsewhere but not good enough to convince the Phillies to keep him. Because at that point, the fanbase will almost certainly feel that Utley used two expensive seasons to keep himself healthy at the team's expense—and at theirs.
The team and its fans have no choice but to hope that Utley comes back healthy, strong and reasonably like the player he has been for them in the past.
It will be interesting, though, to see what that ultimately means.