On December 15th, 2010, the Philadelphia Phillies signed Cliff Lee and in the minds of baseball enthusiasts all around the world, Lee's signature was the kiss of death for the division rival Atlanta Braves.
However, a lot has changed since December 15th—most importantly, Chase Utley's knee.
Before Braves fans gallop triumphantly into a busy street, toss confetti into the air and order their "Atlanta Braves: NL East Champions" t-shirt on eBay, they must wait and hear whether or not the heart and soul of Philadelphia will require surgery.
The bad news? Nobody knows the answer to that question.
Let's pretend for a second that Utley will require surgery and misses, say, 10 weeks. How would that affect the National League East?
Utley missed significant time last year—he finished with only 115 games—and the Phillies obviously suffered from not having their No. 3 hitter. However, Jayson Werth and Ryan Howard were able to carry the lost weight in the lineup and Philly was able to score just enough runs to win the division.
Now Jayson is sipping lattes in D.C, playing for a last place team and making bank, while big man Howard sits at home, wondering how he is going to produce all the runs in 2011.
Sure, the Phillies have some firepower left in the arsenal with Howard, Carlos Ruiz, Placido Polanco, Raul Ibanez and Shane Victorino (no, not Jimmy Rollins) but if you take a closer look, that isn't really firepower—more like a few old BB Guns and one big bazooka that jams at the wrong time.
Polanco is pushing 36 and posted stats well below his career average in just about every offensive category. Sure, he's a class act and a sure thing in the field, but Polanco is famous for his injury plagued seasons and can not be relied heavily on.
Ruiz, arguably the MVP of the Phillies in 2010, had a career year last year. However, the catcher has never played more than 121 games, so it remains to be seen what Ruiz can do with the bat while being behind the plate for a full season.
Ibanez is almost 39 years old and is obviously on a decline in his career. The vet will provide a decent bat at times, but his age has to catch up with him some time.
Victorino is really, really fast and a really, really, great defender. Offensively, there isn't much to say. In 2010, the Flyin' Hawaiian's BA, OBP, OPS, SLG and hits all decreased dramatically while his strikeout totals increased.
Victorino is an average hitter at best.
Ryan Howard is a paradox. Howard goes from hitting 45 home runs and driving in 141 in 2009, to posting Corey Hart numbers in 2010—31 homers and 108 RBIs. Obviously, Howard is still one of the best hitters in the game, but Phillies fans have to be at least a little bit worried about the "slugger's" decline.
Maybe 2010 was just an off year or maybe it was a preview of what the rest of Howard's career will look like—only time will tell. No matter what the case, Howard can not score all the runs for this team.
Fun fact: Every player I just mentioned will be above the age of 31 by season's end.
If Utley does miss significant time this season, his replacement will be Wilson Valdez.
I imagine everyone in Philly cringing when they read that sentence, so I'll say it again: If Utley does miss significant time this season, his replacement will be Wilson Valdez.
Let's just say that Valdez, a career .240 hitter, is not the right-handed force the Phillies need in their lineup and unless Amaro Jr. goes out and signs David Eckstein or trades for Michael Young, the absence of Utley will greatly diminish all the high hopes that began on December 15th, 2010.
The Atlanta Braves' offense was already better than Philly's before Utley and "phenom," Domonic Brown got banged up. Atlanta's offense is young, powerful and deep and no matter what happens to Chase, they will score the most runs in the division, but a scalpel in Utley's flesh will be the icing on the cake for the Braves.
No matter how many aces there are on a pitching staff, offense is equally—if not more—important than the depth of the rotation and a Phillies offense without Utley just doesn't cut it.
Don't get me wrong: Halladay, Hamels, Lee and Oswalt will win a good amount of games for Philly in 2010, but as I look into this magical crystal ball of mine, I see a lot of no decisions in their futures.
The future of the NL East—and probably all of baseball—relies on those lucky doctors giving Utley their "second opinion."
Bad news Philly fans: It's not always sunny in Philadelphia.