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Ryan Howard a much bigger loss than Chase Utley for Phillies

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The news that Chase Utley would be heading off to parts unknown to have his creaky knees examined was about as depressing as it was predictable for most Phillies fans.

Anyone who watched the five-time All Star last season could easily see the effect that those knees had on the best hitting second baseman in the majors from 2006-2009. Utley’s inability to generate offense was especially apparent in the second half of the 2011 season, when he hit .245 with only 7 home runs and 26 RBI.   Utley on stool photo: David Warren

It was hoped that a full off-season of rest and a new conditioning program would allow Utley to calm the inflammation in those ever-important leg joints. Unfortunately, it is looking more and more like Utley’s days as a top-tier player are all but over.  

And that has analysts and fans feeling especially pessimistic about the upcoming Phillies season. There are those who have gone the Chicken Little route, admitting fears of missed playoffs and the Washington Nationals. Then there are the sane individuals who recognize that a sixth straight NL East title may not be a forgone conclusion for a team that is still very talented.

The unknown status of Utley was seemingly the last and most painful straw for the Phillies’ faithful as they worried about their aging ballclub.  But while many still view Utley as the heart and soul of his team, the reality is that his loss will affect the team far less than that of the infielder that has played to his left for the past seven years.

Ryan Howard's impending absence from the Phillies’ lineup is something we have known about for five months.  When Howard tore his left achilles tendon last October, we all knew it would quite a while before the Big Piece was driving in runs again.  Now, the same can be said for Utley, who never even took the field this spring before being shut down yet again.

As for which injury represents a greater loss to the Phillies, there’s no doubt that it’s Howard’s.   Over the last six seasons, Howard has averaged 44 home runs and 133 RBI while playing in 153 games each year.  While some may argue that Howard’s statistical off-year in 2011 was a sign that his output was starting to decline, he is still one of the top run producers in all of baseball.  

By comparison, Chase Utley’s last two seasons combined have failed to match Howard’s oft-criticized 2011 numbers.  From 2010-2011, Utley played in 218 games and posted only 27 homers and 109 RBI (compared to Howard’s 33 homers and 116 RBI in 143 games last season).

Aside from their recent offensive numbers, the financial commitments to Utley and Howard point to just how crippling (pardon the term) Howard’s injury could be to the future of the franchise.  If Howard’s torn achilles tendon initiates an Utley-esque decline in the big slugger’s game, it could make it very difficult for the Phillies to handle his payroll while continuing to add talent to their roster.  At age 32, Howard is still owed $125 million over the next five years. By comparison, Chase Utley will cost the Phillies $15 million this year and again next year before his contract expires.

The point is that, while Utley’s injuries seem more career-threatening, he is only signed through next season, after which the Phillies could pursue a quality replacement using the money they were paying him. Howard, however, will still be wearing Phillies pinstripes through 2017.

Finally, the question of who will replace Utley and Howard seems to be already answered. Ruben Amaro Jr. has already stated publicly that Freddy Galvis can handle the team’s second base duties.  Howard’s replacement looks to be some combination of Ty Wigginton, John Mayberry Jr. and Jim Thome.  

Once again, the loss of Howard looms large. If Mayberry spends much time at first base, the dropoff from Howard would be less severe, but it also means that Laynce Nix is earning a lot of at-bats. The problem with that scenario is that Laynce Nix is earning a lot of at-bats.Ryan Howard photo: SI

The thought that Jim Thome could start a lot of games at first base is probably as wishful as the one that has Ryan Howard returning to the lineup in May or June.

Some combination of Galvis and Placido Polanco at second base, however, may give the Phillies less of a dropoff then they will find at first base.  Both are very good defensively, and the truth is that Utley’s offensive production this season was likely to be similar to his second half numbers from last season. After all, wasn’t it Utley’s sore knees that were believed to rob him of his power in 2011?  

In the end, there is no way for the Phillies to effectively replace either Ryan Howard or Chase Utley.  When healthy, both players are among the greatest in franchise history. But the subtraction of Ryan Howard for a large percentage of this season (and I am on record saying that Howard will not play in half of the team’s regular season games) will be the team’s greatest challenge.  

As for beyond this season, Phillies fans can probably begin to look at the team’s plans for the Post-Utley era.   With the number of $20 million players on the team’s roster, Ryan Howard being at the top of list, there probably won’t be any Robinson Cano signings on the team’s horizon.  What that probably means is Galvis will be the team’s second baseman of the future, with Utley’s money being spent elsewhere.  

If recent history is any indication, the Phillies should expect other injuries to key players as the season plays out.  However, when it comes to production and financial impact on the team, it’s hard to imagine that any injury could be a bigger achilles’ heel for this franchise than the one to Ryan Howard’s achilles heel.

Matt Babiarz was born and raised in the Philadelphia area.  He graduated from the University of Alabama, but remained a very close observer of the Philadelphia sports scene.  He recently began covering the Phillies for Philly2Philly.com.   You can also read his work at Bleacherreport.com within the Philadelphia Phillies section. 

Matt can be contacted at mattbabz@comcast.net  

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Photos:
Howard Injury: AP
Utley on stool: David Warren
Howard Swing: AP/TomMihalek