Superstars, like all athletes, experience two deaths, but at least they often have a say over the first one: the end of their careers. The Braves' Chipper Jones, for example, announced last month that this will be his final season, initiating a six-month valedictory tour for the 19-year veteran and 1999 NL MVP.
It appears increasingly unlikely that another NL East star, 33-year-old Chase Utley, will ever enjoy such a send-off. For a five-year stretch, from 2005 to '09, the Phillies' second baseman, perennially underappreciated come awards time, was by some metrics the second-most valuable player in the game. During that span he averaged 29 home runs and hit .301 with a .922 OPS, numbers rarely witnessed at his position, and according to baseball-reference.com only Albert Pujols (43.2) had a higher WAR than Utley (32.4). Utley was a spectacular defender and the game's savviest base stealer. It was the type of peak that lands you in Cooperstown.
But the years to follow have been less kind. Before last season, Utley developed a host of chronic knee conditions, which now include chondromalacia—a degeneration of cartilage—and bone inflammation. He missed the first 46 games in 2011 and hit just .259 with 11 homers when he returned. The outlook for 2012 is worse: With both knees aching, Utley didn't play in camp and will again start the season on the DL. More concerning is that he showed no improvement over the course of the spring. "He never really engaged his lower half at all," says a scout who watched Utley take batting practice eight to 10 times. "You could see he was in pain."
Utley's absence presents an immediate problem for the Phillies, who will start the season with an offense that is painfully thin, particularly until slugger Ryan Howard recovers from surgery to repair a torn left Achilles. Apart from outfielders Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino, the everyday lineup is full of players who are past their offensive primes (Jimmy Rollins and Placido Polanco), those who have not yet approached them (John Mayberry Jr. and Utley's replacement, rookie Freddy Galvis) and those who never really had them (Ty Wigginton, Carlos Ruiz).
It's too early to eulogize Utley's career: He might yet make it back, and if he does, opines the scout, he'll be "a player that plays hard and is a good at bat when it counts." However, the scout adds, "I don't think we'll ever again see the Chase Utley we fondly remember. When you don't have that lower half, you're not going to have the power." This is disconcerting for the Phillies and sad for Utley, whose talent made him an elite player for half a decade, but whose body might keep him from becoming a legend.
Spring training stats are notoriously illusory. Here are three players, though, who had hot springs this year—and should keep it up
Liriano's 2011 spring augured things to come: He had a 4.82 ERA and then a brutal regular season. This spring he had a 2.45 ERA over 22 innings.
SP, White Sox
The lefthanded ex-reliever, 23, improved as he learned to manage games like a starter. A sparkling 22--2 strikeout-to-walk ratio suggests he'll be an ace.
Hosmer, 22, hit .408 with 29 RBIs through Sunday, and that's no fluke. "He's got superstar written all over him," says a scout. "A very advanced hitter."
Photograph by MARK GOLDMAN/ICON SMI
CHASE IN THE HOLE Utley may well play this season, but scouts say that his chronically damaged knees make it unlikely that he'll ever again be the elite player he was from 2005 to '09.
PORTER BINKS (HOSMER)