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Philadelphia Phillies second baseman Chase Utley hasn’t played in a game since July 27, when his fourth metacarpal bone in his right hand was broken by a pitch from Washington Nationals left-hander John Lannan.
Yesterday, Utley was given clearance by his doctors to resume swinging a bat, and he hopes to find himself in the Phillies’ lineup as early as August 27, when the Phillies begin a crucial four-game series with the New York Mets at home.
Prior to his injury, Utley was arguably the National League’s leading candidate for the Most Valuable Player award, as he led or was near the top in many offensive categories including VORP (Value Over Replacement Player), EQA (Equivalent Average), and ESPN’s Player Ratings. In fact, he is still among the leaders in those categories despite having missed nearly a month — he ranks 5th in VORP, 6th in EQA, and 11th in ESPN’s Player Ratings currently. Add to that his impeccable defense — highest Zone Rating among NL second basemen — as well.
Getting Utley back should be a huge boost for the Phillies, although the offense hasn’t really skipped a beat in his absence (5.5 runs per game in the 22 games he’s missed, going 13-9 in that span). However, the Phillies should not rush Utley back in a desperate attempt to gain as much ground in the NL East and Wild Card races as possible.
If Phillies organization is looking for guidance, they should look at Derrek Lee of the Chicago Cubs. Lee had two bones in his hand broken in a collision with the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Rafael Furcal last season on April 19. He didn’t return until June 25 — about two months and a week of missed time.
Lee hit only 5 homeruns the rest of the season (36 games). He missed time from July 24 to August 28 with problems stemming from his injured wrist, likely due to the Cubs rushing him back. Lee said of his injury problems,
It’s just a situation where it isn’t getting better. I was kind of just playing for the sake of playing. I wasn’t helping anybody. So if you’re not helping the team, you’re not helping yourself. (ESPN)
Lee’s line after his initial injury, but before the injury flared up again:
.326 OBP/.320 SLG (1 HR) in 20 games
Lee’s line after the injury flared up, until the end of the season:
.350 OBP/.571 SLG (4 HR) in 16 games
If the Cubs had just been patient with Lee’s recovery, they would have saved themselves (and Lee) a lot of aggravation and probably could have had someone more productive in Lee’s spot.
The Phillies can learn from this. If they don’t see that Utley has returned 100% (they should be observing Utley with a high-intensity magnifying glass every time he picks up a bat or throws a ball), he should not be taken off of the disabled list until mid-September at the earliest (they begin a 3-game series with the Mets at Shea Stadium on September 14).
There is no question that there is a mountain of pressure on the Phillies organization, on manager Charlie Manuel, and on the players (especially the longer-tenured ones like Jimmy Rollins and Pat Burrell) to at least make the playoffs. But they should not attempt to do so at the expense of the health of one of the best overall players in baseball, and the face of the Phillies franchise.
The Phillies’ front office thought he was valuable enough to pay him $85 million over the next 7 seasons, so he is valuable enough to recuperate at a steady pace.
Here’s hoping he turns out just fine.