Bob Ford: Phillies' dilemma: Lick wounds or bandage them

If Chase Utley and other injured Phillies can return at a high level, the Fightin's could be a playoff threat yet.
If Chase Utley and other injured Phillies can return at a high level, the Fightin's could be a playoff threat yet. (YONG KIM / Staff)
Posted: July 01, 2012

In baseball, the most difficult game in the world, one success in three attempts is a very good average. The Phillies, who are definitely making the game look as difficult as it is, hope they don't go 1 for 3 in a much more important way this season.

If the Phils are going to turn around their season, they need to do better than that as Chase Utley, Roy Halladay, and Ryan Howard come back from health and injury issues.

Just getting one of them back as a contributing performer won't cut it. Getting two back would help a lot, but still might not be enough. Getting all three back and playing well is another story. If that happened, the Phillies wouldn't just make the playoffs. They would be a dangerous team there.

So, what is the realistic chance that happens? Probably not very good.

These are the questions the organization has to ask itself as general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. decides if he is going to give up something that might be useful farther down the road in order to trade for bullpen help, or help in any of the areas that are lacking.

Utley, Howard, and Halladay - if they play well - can paper over some of the current shortcomings, but they can help the bullpen only indirectly, either by helping provide bigger leads or by making sure the relievers don't pitch as often.

Amaro knows the bullpen isn't close to good enough, and he knows exactly what he can do about it. The question is whether it is worth spending good money or losing good talent in an attempt to save a season that could be irretrievably lost. Writing off 2012 as one of those seasons in which it is better to lick your wounds than to bandage them might be the best course of action.

It all gets back to the matter of Utley, Howard, and Halladay making successful comebacks. Three for three.

The players were sidelined for very different reasons. In fact, they represent the spectrum of injury. Howard tore his Achilles tendon. That's a very straightforward problem with a straightforward solution, if it works. Halladay, who has pitched more than 220 innings each of the last six seasons, was shut down with a strained upper back muscle on his throwing side. Utley's knees are shot, and he has attempted to strengthen his legs so he can keep playing despite a condition that simply isn't going to improve.

That's three very different sets of circumstances, and, truthfully, the most worrisome might be Halladay's.

Even though Howard is running right now as if he has a big splinter in his foot, he should continue to improve. The great danger is not reinjuring the same Achilles, but tearing the other one as he compensates. It happens all the time in these cases. The Phillies know they are taking a chance by putting him back at the plate in Lakewood for rehab games, and if he is injured again, there will be second-guessing. Still, Howard's chance of being a decent contributor to the Phillies by the end of July, even as just a distraction to opposing pitchers, is, say, 70 percent.

As for Utley, the odds are no better than 50-50. He worked out hard during the offseason, at least by his account, and lasted for only a couple of weeks during spring training. After another four months of preparation, nothing has really changed. It becomes a matter of how much discomfort he can take and whether he is effective as he plays through it.

The wild card is Halladay, who, on top of his more recent workload, has logged more than 2,600 innings in a 15-year career. That's a lot of punishment on his right arm. It is certainly possible that the strained latissimus dorsi was the entire problem that led to shoulder stiffness and pain. It could also be that the muscle strain was the result of something that is not structurally sound in the shoulder. The doctors didn't find anything, but that doesn't mean nothing is there.

There is no way to gauge the odds on Halladay's effective return. He went on the disabled list exactly two years to the day after he pitched a perfect game. He threw a bullpen session Friday, his first work off a mound in more than a month. It was said to go well, but it will be another two to three weeks before he can pitch in a game.

Three injuries, three comebacks, three vital pieces of the team. Amaro can count to three, and he knows about the difficulty of achieving perfection in baseball, whether on the field or in the trainer's room. He probably needs all three back to justify trying to play for a championship this season.

The non-waiver trade deadline is at the end of July. The answers to all three questions could arrive by then, too. That would be nice. It would make the decision easier.

Somehow, though, this season doesn't feel like one in which anything will come that easily.


Contact columnist Bob Ford at bford@phillynews.com, read his blog at philly.com/postpatterns, and follow on Twitter @bobfordsports.

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