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Expectations Too High For Chase Utley’s Return to Phillies

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Let me begin by saying that there is no player that I feel gives Phillies fans a better value for their costly ticket purchases than one Chase Cameron Utley. 

In fact, I would even go as far as saying that if the rest of his Phillies teammates approached the game with Utley’s level of intensity, the Phillies would not be looking upward at a .500 record this season. 

There simply hasn’t been a player in the modern incarnation of the Phillies who plays harder and brings more of himself to the ballpark on a daily basis than Chase Utley. 

With that being said, Utley’s return from a 76-game absence on Wednesday is being viewed as a major boost to the Phillies’ offense.  Many are viewing Utley’s return as the first of a three-step process (along with the returns of Roy Halladay and Ryan Howard) that will make the Phillies NL East contenders once again. 

Even Charlie Manuel expects to see a healthier Utley to provide a major shot in the arm to his frustrating offense.  Manuel has already announced that Utley will assume his customary third spot in the Phillies’ lineup.  

Utley is our three-hole hitter," Manuel said. "I think he is the guy that works the count. I think he is the guy that, when he's right, he'll hit 25 to 30 homers. I think he is the guy that'll hit .300. I think he is the guy that can knock in 100 runs and score 100. That's what I picture Utley to be. I think until we find somebody I think can do better, more than likely he's going to land in that three-hole."Photo: ESPN

When it comes to his manager’s assessment, there are certainly two valid points. One, Utley works the count better than all of the free-swingers on the roster. Two, the 2012 Phillies have found no better option for the three-hole, which they could just as easily refer to as the black hole. As the season approaches its midway point, Phillies’ three-hitters have posted only four home runs and 28 RBI while batting .268.  

Unfortunately for a team and a fan base that is desperate for a reason to believe that the 2012 season is ready to turn the corner, Chase Utley can no longer put up the numbers that Manuel referenced.  He hasn’t knocked in 100 runs since 2008, and his recent home run numbers only eclipse 25 if you add his 2009 and 2010 totals (from 220 total games). 

Will Utley’s presence in the lineup improve the team’s performance?  There is little doubt.  His approach to the game while hitting, fielding and running the bases are a major upgrade from anything the Phillies have gotten from the handful of second basemen that have tried to fill in for him over the last two seasons.  His energy level and leadership will also be a tremendous influence over a team that has seemed to go through the motions at times this season. 

But, to expect Utley to put up All-Star numbers at the plate is unreasonable.  One of the biggest concerns surrounding Utley’s return is the way he performed in his nine rehab games (not to mention his extended Spring Training results) at Class-A Clearwater.  Utley managed 5 hits in 38 at-bats against low-level minor league pitching. 

Without putting too much stock into rehab performance statistics, there is still reason to be concerned with Utley’s plate performance during those nine games.  Utley and the Phillies have been saying since March that his balky knees were not preventing him from hitting on a daily basis.  Utley took batting practice every day throughout the four month rehabilitation designed to help him to play second base on a daily basis.
Batting practice is not a substitute for seeing live pitching, but with four months of daily hitting under his belt, you would not expect Utley to bat .156 with only one extra base hit against Single-A pitching if he was still the type of player that could hit 25-30 homers and drive in 100 runs at the major league level. 

I will be in attendance for Utley’s return to the Phillies on Thursday.  

I will be on my feet, and cheering loudly when Kashmir is played over the Citizens Bank Park sound system.

I appreciate Utley as much as any Phillies player in the last 30 years.

But, I will be approaching his return with expectations that are realistic for where Chase Utley is at this stage of his career.

 

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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:
Shades: AP, Kathy Willens
Fielding: ESPN
Weighted bat: MLB (AP)