The Bus to Galviston
First, the news came out (and was investigated thoroughly by our blogging overlord here) that Chase Utley, the best Phillies position player since Mike Schmidt and, for the last half of the 2000s, the best position player on Earth not named Albert Pujols or Joe Mauer, would not be ready for Opening Day.
For some reason, I wasn’t particularly disturbed by the news and couldn’t figure out why. After all, if the Phillies are the Death Star, Chase Utley is the main reactor that powers the station, and his rapidly degenerating lower body joints are the thermal exhaust port, a direct hit on which could start a chain reaction and destroy the station. I think John Lannan is Luke Skywalker in this metaphor, which makes me a little uncomfortable, but we can iron out the particulars later.
Particularly for a team that’s going to be without its biggest power threat (Ryan Howard) for a significant part of the season, the loss of Utley could be catastrophic. The Phillies don’t stand to score a ton of runs anyway, and replacing Utley with either Freddy Galvis, Ty Wigginton, or Michael Martinez won’t do much to help that. Dave Cameron, Grand Duke of FanGraphs, was characteristically honest on the issue. And while I appreciate Cameron’s candor, saying “the Phillies are considering using a guy who posted a .315 OBP in Triple-A last year as their 2B?” doesn’t exactly generate a warm, fizzy feeling in my bowels.
Then, this afternoon, the news came out that Michael Martinez, last year’s Rule 5 project and one of the major fallback options at second base, would miss several weeks with a broken toe. This didn’t bother me either, though for more readily explainable reasons. I’m reminded of the classic and moving scene in Broadcast News, where Albert Brooks’ Aaron delivers the memorable line: “I know you care about him. I’ve never seen you like this about anyone, so please don’t take it wrong when I tell you that I believe that Tom, while a very nice guy, is the Devil.”
Well, Michael Martinez, while being a very nice guy, is a dreadful major league infielder. Martinez, for his entire major league career, has a .198/.258/.282 slash line in 234 plate appearances. He hasn’t played enough at any position to generate meaningful defensive statistics, but it’s not like the Phillies brass is out there telling everyone he’s the second coming of Bill Mazeroski. And on the basepaths, Martinez is 82-for-124 in career stolen base attempts in the minors, a 66 percent success rate, which is low enough to actually hurt the team. If it’s possible for a major leaguer to possess none of the traditional five tools, Michael Martinez is that man. But anyone who’s reading this watched enough Phillies games last season to know that anyway.
Which leaves Ty Wigginton, who is a second baseman by the same logic that if you leave a fish in a birdcage overnight once a week, it will turn into a cockatoo. Plus, odds are he’ll be busy minding first base in Howard’s absence.
Which leaves Freddy Galvis. Cameron’s snarky comment aside, I’m actually rather excited about Galvis. I’ll concede the eminent possibility that Galvis could grade out offensively somewhere between Wilson Valdez (we’ll get back to him later) and a four-foot-high pile of potatoes. People with a career .613 minor league OPS generally don’t get to the majors and start raking. But by all accounts, Galvis is a fantastic defensive shortstop, a quality that should be even more evident at second base. Even assuming that any OPS mark above .600 would be a victory for Galvis, he’s still the second base option I’d have over any other, not only because of his defense, but because he’s a 22-year-old unknown. Rather than reaching for an off-the-shelf utilityman (Wigginton) or a career minor leaguer (Martinez or Valdez), the Phillies are plugging a hole with a young, homegrown player, and giving him a chance to impress. With Howard, Utley, Placido Polanco, Jimmy Rollins, and even Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee all approaching their athletic dotage, it’s a habit I’d like the Phillies’ brass to get into. And at the risk of tempting fate, there’s no way Galvis can be worse than Martinez over the course of a full season. All told, I’m pretty pumped about Galvis, enough to gas up a bandwagon in his honor. So you’re on notice, Phillies fans–Freddy Galvis is officially in his indie phase, so hop on the train before it fills up.
But back to the original point. Why isn’t Utley’s injury causing mass panic? After all, Bill’s been going on about how Utley is the most important player in baseball for weeks now. I think Eric Karabell of ESPN’s Baseball Today hit it on the head in yesterday’s Baseball Today (the March 19 episode, for those of you who want to give it a listen). To paraphrase, Karabell pointed out that the Phillies won 102 games last year, despite Utley only posting 454 plate appearances, and when he did play, he was hardly the .300/.390/.520 player he was during his Joe Morgan phase from 2005 to 2010. For most Phillies fans nowadays, the expectation for Utley is probably a little better than 103 games played and a .259/.344/.425 triple slash line he posted last year, but it can’t really be more than that. Karabell went on to say that even a Polanco/Rollins/Galvis/Wigginton infield isn’t that scary a prospect, because the Phillies have Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels. Add in Vance Worley (even if he regresses some, as I expect him to) and Joe Blanton, and I struggle to imagine a pitching staff in the majors pitching more and better innings this coming season. And those five starters will hand off to a bullpen that includes Antonio Bastardo and Jonathan Papelbon.
In short, scoring runs will not be easy for the Phillies this season, and the more at-bats Galvis and Wigginton have to take over from Utley and Howard, the more true that will become. But unlike the Phillies teams from four or five years ago, a few runs will do in most cases. If Halladay or Hamels goes down, or Worley turns into Tyler Green 2.0, then it’s collar-tugging time. But for now, remember: the Phillies were going to win 90+ games without scoring many runs even if Utley played 150 games. And while it’s fun to spend the spring bigging up the Marlins, Nationals, and Braves, all of those teams have weaknesses too. The Phillies are still the odds-on favorite to win the NL East, and unless they lose a top pitcher, that’s probably still the case. So sit back and enjoy the Galvis.
But I still haven’t answered the truly salient question, the “should have kept” question. With the attrition rate for Phillies second basemen sitting somewhere around the attrition rate for ANZAC soldiers at Gallipoli, isn’t this the perfect time to second-guess the trade that sent fan favorite Wilson Valdez to Cincinnati? Exxon, the man who gamely stood his post in relief of an injured Utley for two years? Wouldn’t we be better off with the 2010 team MVP at the keystone, rather than some unproven rookie?
Absolutely not. Let’s not say things we can’t take back.