Utley thinking about career as concern grows about knee

Chase Utley's activities have been limited to batting practice and playing catch.
Chase Utley's activities have been limited to batting practice and playing catch.
Posted: March 10, 2011

CLEARWATER, Fla. - It was not an easy day for the tea-leaf readers, not with the medical terms that were tossed around and the varying opinions expressed by the principal parties about what it all meant.

The morning started on a patch of sidewalk outside Bright House Field, with Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. and head athletic trainer Scott Sheridan delivering the grave news that there was no news regarding Chase Utley, and then answering 10 minutes worth of questions about the non-news. Boiled down to its essence, the message was this: The Phillies aren't quite sure how they will end up treating the patellar tendinitis that has afflicted their star second baseman's right knee, but they have officially moved on to the next steps - gathering opinions from various specialists, comparing notes and attempting at all costs to avoid surgery.

All of it sounded like the type of information that should be relayed in the type of solemn, deliberate tone generally reserved for talks about dead goldfish and post-election conciliatory speeches. But then Amaro was asked if Utley faced a realistic chance of missing the 2011 season, and the GM sounded an uplifting note.

"I don't think that that's an option, no,'' he responded.

And, he continued, "We think he's going to be healthy enough sooner, rather than later.''

Which was all well and good until about an hour later, when the second baseman himself stood on a patch of outfield grass in front of the leftfield wall that sits in the shadow of a Tiki Bar at Bright House Field. Chase Utley spoke as Chase Utley usually speaks: in a flat, measured, stoic tone that reveals little deeper than the nouns and verbs he chooses.

It was here that somebody asked Utley, whose activities have been limited to batting practice and playing catch since the first week of spring training, whether he anticipated playing this season.

"My goal is to alleviate this as quickly as possible but still keep in mind that I have a career ahead of me,'' said the perennial All-Star.

Not a season. Not an Opening Day.

A career.

Roughly 5 hours later, the day concluded with Charlie Manuel standing outside a cramped clubhouse at Joker Marchant Stadium talking about the potential loss of a player who occupies one of the softest parts of his heart, a player who over the last three seasons has hit .284 with a .388 on-base percentage, .502 slugging percentage, 80 home runs, 262 RBI and 300 runs. Not only did Utley battle serious injuries to his hip (2008) and thumb (2010) during that stretch, but, apparently, also his knee, which he said has been plagued by intermittent bouts of tendinitis throughout his career.

An eternal optimist, at least publicly, when it comes to his ballclub, Manuel had downplayed his concern about Utley throughout the spring. The second baseman had experienced the condition before, and it had always dissipated. This time, though, the pain lingers.

"I'm more concerned than I was a week ago,'' he admitted yesterday.

That concern led Manuel to seek out Tigers third baseman Brandon Inge prior to the Phillies' game against Detroit yesterday. Two years ago, Inge was diagnosed with patellar tendinitis in both knees during spring training and decided to play through the pain rather than undergo season-ending surgery. He performed well for 3 months, hitting .275 with 18 home runs. But after July 1, when the pain in his knees worsened, he hit .189 with 99 strikeouts. Inge wound up having surgery on his left knee after the season.

Manuel and Inge talked at length about the condition, and the Tigers infielder told the Phillies manager that he would call Utley to offer more insight.

"I know one thing,'' Inge told reporters yesterday, according to CBSSports.com, "the pain associated with it is not fun. If it's the same thing I had, he has two options - get it taken care of and miss the season, or really, really suck it up.''

Right now, the Phillies are looking for options that will make it easier for Utley to "suck it up.'' Sheridan, team doctor Michael Ciccotti and representatives of Utley are currently mining their various networks for potential solutions to what the club has described as "mild patellar tendinitis and chondromalacia'' and "bone inflammation.'' The club administered a cortisone shot to Utley's knee on Friday - they said that, to their knowledge, it was the first time Utley had been injected in that knee - and on Monday submitted him to an MRI focused on his knee cartilage. In layman's terms, chondromalacia is roughening on the surface of the patella that accumulates over time. It is sometimes referred to as "runner's knee.''

"We're trying to do this non-operatively,'' Amaro said. "We'd rather not go in there and operate. We are going to try to exhaust all those possibilities. Now, it may turn out that we have to do something, as far as an operation is concerned. But the goal is to get him well without doing it.''

Still, there was lots of talk about the big picture - about the 3 years remaining on the 32-year-old's contract, about the $45 million owed to him through 2013, about Utley's desire to remain healthy and productive well beyond 2011. Left unsaid was the decline in his power numbers over the past 3 years - from a .566 slugging percentage in 2007 to .535 in 2008 to .508 in 2009 to .445 in 2010 - but this new medical information at the very least offers one interpretation.

"There is no timetable,'' Utley said. "We're not going to look for the short-term solution. I want to be smart about this and realize that I have 3 years left on this contract to fulfill.''

For Manuel, a man who this offseason saw his most productive player from a year ago leave for free-agent riches, the uncertainty surrounding another offensive star has to be unsettling. Amaro said he thinks the Phillies have the talent in camp to withstand the loss of Utley. He pointed to Wilson Valdez, who played superb defense but posted a meager .667 OPS in place of Jimmy Rollins last season, as the likely replacement at second. Asked what actions he is taking to bolster personnel at second base, he replied, "Nothing.''

Manuel sounded a little less certain.

"From an offensive standpoint, if we lost Utley and [Jayson] Werth, just from an offensive standpoint, and from a defensive standpoint, we've got to go like hell to find two real good players,'' Manuel said. "I'm not saying we can't do it, because things work sometimes for you and you still have to go out there and play and you can't make no excuses and all that. You guys have heard the way I talk before. But now we're talking about two All-Star players.''

One is gone for good. As for the other, a lot remains to be seen.

For more Phillies coverage and opinion, read David Murphy's blog, High Cheese, at www.philly.com/HighCheese. Follow him on Twitter at


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