The Philadelphia Phillies finally have five-time All-Star second baseman Chase Utley back to their lineup. Utley missed nearly the entire first half of the season due to a bout of patellar tendinitis in both knees, the second straight season he has missed significant time as a result.
Utley homered in his first at-bat back, which seemed to have been scripted right out of a Hollywood movie. Utley went 3-for-5 in his 2012 debut, making his only two outs on deep fly balls hit to center field. He also fielded his position very well. The only thing that really spoiled the return was that the bullpen surrendered 11 runs to the Pittsburgh Pirates, by far one of the league’s worst-hitting teams.
So how much will Utley’s return actually help the Phillies? Since debuting as a regular in 2005, Utley has accounted for 48.6 wins above that of a replacement player, according to Fan Graphs. Utley has been worth 22.9 more runs than the next best second baseman in the game (Robinson Cano), and the only player in all of baseball to have been worth more runs to his team is Albert Pujols.
Utley registered 3.9 WAR last year in only 103 games. Compare that to Ryan Howard, who amounted for 1.6 WAR in 152 games. Utley takes over a position that has been played primarily by Freddy Galvis and Mike Fontenot this season. While Galvis has been a solid player for a 22-year old rookie and Fontenot has hit very well (.319 average) in 74 plate appearances, neither comes close to resembling the all-around player Utley is.
While it seems too fairy tale-ish to expect the Phillies to suddenly go on a hot streak and take over the lead in the NL East, they’re only six games back in the wild card with over half a season to go.
Howard began a rehab assignment in Clearwater, and regardless of his low WAR total last year, he offers a lot as a mammoth left-handed hitting first baseman with the potential to go yard on any given pitch. Roy Halladay will be back soon after the All-Star break, which gives the Phillies the game’s best pitching rotation. Jonathan Papelbon is earning a ridiculous amount as a closer but he’s been every bit as good as advertised.
So when can we expect the Phillies in first place?
I wouldn’t count on it. They’re still seven games under .500, the worst they’ve been this season. Last year when Utley returned, they were 29-18, at 11 games over .500.
The 2012 Phillies just aren’t a very good team. Their bullpen (stats) is atrocious and decimated by injuries. Joe Blanton and Kyle Kendrick are downright awful every time they take the mound. And the other teams in the division – namely the Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves – are just too good.
Does that mean this is the end of the Phillies streak of winning? In the sense that their five straight division titles will end, yes. In the sense of their mini-dynasty being over, only time will tell. But if the Phillies want to add another World Series championship to their collection, they better do it soon because their team isn’t getting any younger.