Phillies in dark about Utley, and so are we

Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Charlie Manuel PHOTOS: David Maialetti / Staff Photographer
Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Charlie Manuel PHOTOS: David Maialetti / Staff Photographer
Posted: June 04, 2012

The Phillies are gripped now by uncertainty. Well, maybe not gripped — but they are surrounded by the unknown, engulfed by it, trying not to be paralyzed by it.

On Friday, that meant Roy Halladay would not talk to the media, because the second opinion on his injured lat had not yet been rendered. And it meant that Shane Victorino sat out, because he wasn’t aware that getting a cortisone shot to calm down a tendon in his right hand (that apparently has bothered him since spring training) would require a day of inactivity.

It meant that Vance Worley and his bad elbow would need to wait one more day before knowing whether he could return to the starting rotation. And it meant, most of all, the acknowledgement by general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. that neither Ryan Howard nor Chase Utley will likely see his name written into the lineup card in the month of June.

Utley. His is the truly maddening case. He takes batting practice before games, he sometimes takes ground balls, he does some kind of unspecified workout regimen, and another page on the calendar turns. You do not get the impression that a ton of communicating is going on. As Amaro acknowledges, "He doesn’t tell me very often what kind of pain he has."

The truth is that they all wait for word like pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square, eyes focused on a distant chimney, searching for a hint of white smoke.

Habemus Utley?…?

But when they have him, what will they have? The same question goes for Howard, but it especially goes for Utley — who could generate no power last year, when he had one bad knee, and now he has two.

How can they plan for what likely will be a chaotic stretch run in the National League East, one in which the Phillies almost certainly will need to make up ground in August and September, when they know so little about people who are so important? How can a general manager hope to make a canny move or two at the end-of-July non-waiver trade deadline when so many landmark players on his team remain shrouded in fog?

Oh, and the fog is not lifting. Amaro acknowledged that on Friday. Asked whether he thought he would get a long-enough look at Utley and Howard before the deadline so that he could know what he was dealing with, the general manager was blunt.

"No, I don’t," Amaro said. "Nope. I do not know what we’re going to get out of them or when they’re going to play."

Read that one over again.

Feel better now?

Didn’t think so.

But that is the Phillies’ current reality. It is June, and nobody can say a definitive word about the situation. Amaro said that Utley would require a stint in the minor leagues, getting at-bats, before he can return. Last season, with the one bad knee, he spent about 10 days on a rehab assignment. This time, Amaro said he wants it to be longer.

So, there is that. But what exactly will trigger the start of that rehab assignment? Amaro has tried before to articulate the thought process, fairly unsuccessfully, and he tried again Friday.

"I think he’s waiting to make sure that he feels stable enough, some stability and strength," Amaro said. "I think he’s looking for comfort. He’s looking to feel as good as he can possibly feel. When he’s ready to do that, he’ll go."

When he came back last year, Utley was noticeably power-deficient. He was missing the piece of his game that made him a special talent. Amaro suggested the memory of that is tied up in what is going on now.

"I think one of the things that Chase is cognizant of is the fact that one of the things he was not able to do last year was build strength in his body," he said. "I think that’s one of the things he’s working on, not just the stability but the strength. He really didn’t have it last year. I think that’s one of the reasons he wasn’t able to drive the ball as well. He couldn’t use his bottom half to hit, which is where you really kind of develop your power."

With that, we wait. Howard is in Florida, running some and getting at-bats against live pitching in simulated games. Utley is in Philadelphia, doing his own thing. They are on separate tracks, maybe parallel tracks, but to where?

The player, he’ll dictate. He’ll let us know," Amaro said. And in the meantime, the Phillies will continue trying to tread water in the dark.

Contact Rich Hofmann at hofmanr@phillynews.com. Read his blog, The Idle Rich, at www.philly.com/TheIdleRich. Follow @theidlerich on Twitter. For recent columns, go to www.philly.com/RichHofmann.

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