Feb 152012
 
Phillies 2B Chase Utley
Chase Utley’s health could make or break the Phillies’ 2012 season

The Middle Infield

Health. That is the biggest word when it comes to the 2012 Phillies infield picture. It is even more important in the middle infield where there are fewer options than there are on other spots on the team. Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins have to play a significant amount of games this season for the Phillies to remain at the top of the National League picture. Each player has missed time in each of the last two seasons forcing the Phillies to rely on lesser capable players in their line up.

Age is probably the second word as both Utley and Rollins are in their thirties now and both have been seeing a decline in their production over the last few years. Age also fits with the health as a hand fits in a glove as the older you are, the slower and less able your body becomes to recovering from injuries and the more likely it is for those injuries to occur. Time also takes away from physical abilities, slowing bat speed, losing a step or two in range, less speed on the base paths.

Depth is the third word. A lot of names from last year’s picture are gone. Wilson Valdez, who was the main back up at both positions and the man who did a yeoman’s job filling in for both Utley and Rollins during their injuries was traded to the Reds for left handed reliever Jeremy Horst. Luis Castillo, Josh Barfield, Ronnie Belliard, Ozzie Chavez, Robert Hudson, Steve Singleton, and Delwyn Young have all departed for one reason or another. Jon Villar was traded in the Roy Oswalt deal two seasons ago so that is another name that may have been on the depth charts for this season that was removed. With the Valdez trade the Phillies are currently lacking a lot of bodies up the middle as compared to other seasons.

If Utley and Rollins go down for any amount of time this may turn into a real problem. There were several quality players who could have helped in this department but the Phillies curiously did not sign any of them. Considering the contracts some of the players received it is even more curious. General manager Ruben Amaro has said the Phillies have great depth, which is why they were able to trade Valdez (which was a salary dump, nothing more) to the Reds. Scouts and people around baseball have said he is full of Twinkies. I tend to agree with them and we will break down second base below and later on shortstop.

Second Base

With Ryan Howard out, the main cog in the offense is Chase Utley. With respects to Nap Lajoie, Juan Samuel, and Manny Trillo, Utley is by far the greatest second baseman the Phillies have ever seen play for them. Unfortunately the last two seasons have seen Utley miss an alarming amount of games due to various injuries. The 33 year old played in 115 games in 2010 and only 103 games in 2011 making many wonder whether his battered body will ever be able to make it through an entire season unscathed ever again.

The injuries not only took away Utley’s playing time but they also took away a large part of Utley’s offensive game as he put up low numbers his offensive production has not seen since he was breaking into the league as a rookie in the early 2000s. While it is probably safe to assume he will never be the 30 homer .900+ OPS player he used to be, if Utley is healthy seeing a 20+ home run high .800 OPS season is not totally unfathomable. The Phillies hope he can return to that form because with Howard out a large part of the offensive production will fall squarely on his shoulders.

In the field Utley’s range has been cut down quite a bit so he doesn’t get to balls that he used to but Utley is a very sound tactical mind at the position. He makes up for a lot of his diminished range by good positioning on hitters and when balls are hit to him he has very soft hands and does not make many errors on everything he does get to. He is also a very good tactical runner on the base paths. He won’t steal 40 or 50 bases, but he can swipe around 20 a year and he rarely gets caught stealing when he does run. He is also very good at takeout slides to break up potential double play balls though many question the “cleanness” of his slides.

The Phillies really need Utley healthy and playing in his usual 150 games because behind him there is not very much to help out at the position at this time. Though the Phillies have said they are looking for some infield depth it has come to little to late because most of the better choices are off the market. As it stands right now Michael Martinez is the main back up due to the trade of Wilson Valdez.

To say it is a weakness is an understatement as Martinez was one of the worst offensive players in the league in 2011. To be fair to Martinez, he was a rule 5 draft pick and this was his first exposure to talent levels above AA. Martinez probably should be getting the treatment Dom Brown is being given by the Phillies and should be at AAA for a full year getting at bats and instruction to try and grow his game. He picked up baseball late in his life so further seasoning is very much needed. His high points are he has a very high energy level and a lot of versatility and athleticism. The low points are that his actual baseball skills are not really developed to a level that is near a Major League replacement level player. He has speed but from the looks of last year he does not know how to use it on the base paths.

This is one of the places the loss of Davey Lopes has probably really hindered the team. His range in the field is good but his glove is erratic at every position. His bat is closer to Mario Mendoza than it is to Jimmy Rollins, but he did show a decent batting eye in at bats last year drawing 18 walks in his 208 plate appearances. While not at a Ricky Henderson level, it’s the one respectable part in his limited showing and comparable to most back up infield types. He seems like a guy who has potential to grow with some time in AAA he could very well develop into a good back up player. This basically is what most Major League teams have sitting on their bench. The problem is as I said is that he is the main back up infielder as of this writing and probably won’t get the developing time he needs at AAA and he is not a guy who you want starting for the majority of the season either.

If Chase Utley does get injured again and has to miss a substantial amount of time the player possibly going to get the most time at second is current third baseman Placido Polanco. Polanco used to be a Gold Glove level at second but that was three years ago and injuries and age have cut down on his range at third so there is really no way of knowing just how many steps he has lost at second as well. Another factor is if you shift Polanco to second, that opens up a hole at third base because that is where he won his Gold Glove Award last year. You also have to take into account that with Polanco’s recent injury history is he even going to be available to move to second if needed. You can’t move a guy who might be on the disabled list.

Ty Wigginton is another player on the depth chart at second base. I talked about his offensive numbers back in the first base portion of the breakdown. His defense at second while passable is not very good. He is a guy who is valuable to have because he can play there in a pinch and even for a number of games but if you have him playing there every day your pitchers may get very angry at you as balls sneak through for singles because he does not have the best range or a sure glove.

Freddy Galvis is Major League ready with his glove. Two problems with the 22 year old are his offense may not be and that glove so far has been predominantly played at shortstop. While it is not a reach to say Galvis would not be able to make a shift over to second as he has the ability and athleticism and while most players who play short can easily slip to their mirror position it is not always the case. Until he actually gets some game play at the position there will remain some questions. If he has a big Spring Training Galvis may actually supplant Michael Martinez as the main back up in the middle infield picture. If he does not, I think it is pretty much a guarantee that Galvis will be on the team by September barring any injuries. Right now he is the closest to Major League ready middle infield prospect the team has.

Kevin Frandsen is a 29 year old who is no stranger to the Majors. He has played for both San Francisco and the Los Angeles Angels. Like Wilson Valdez he has played a number of positions including all the infield spots and also in the outfield but he does not have Valdez’ defense or arm. Frandsen has shown he can hit the ball very well at AAA while at the Major League level he has not shown the same type of success. He has more pop in his bat than Valdez has but his batting eye is about the same as walks are not a big part of his game. His OBP is more the product of getting hits than hits and walks. Last season Frandsen was having one of the best seasons of his career at AAA Lehigh Valley when he was banned for 50 games for failing a PED drug test. This was probably the biggest reason he did not appear on the Phillies roster at any point.

Pete Orr is back again as the scrappy do it all infielder is throwing his hat into the second base depth chart for the second season in a row. Orr is one of those underdog players people seem to gravitate to. He does not have a lot of great skills but he plays the game hard and leaves everything on the field. Orr can play second, short, third, and all three outfield positions. The 32 year old is also a very good baserunner and can swipe the occasional base or leg out a triple. Getting on base is the biggest drawback to his game. He had a great Spring Training last season and started the season out well, but between shuttling down to Lehigh and coming back up to Philly his hittin g went south as he got more playing time with the big club. He ended up at a.219 average with a .279 OBP. Since his career OBP is only .286 at the Major League level the lack of longevity of his successful start was not a surprise. Orr however is one of those high energy guys that the Phillies love so he will probably get every opportunity to win a bench job.

Wildcards to the position are Harold Garcia and Albert Cartwright. Garcia was a hitting machine at multiple levels in 2010 and put himself on the map of Phillies prospects. Last season he blew out his knee after twelve games at Reading and missed the rest of the year. Where he fits in depends on the health of his knee and if he can continue to hit after his recovery. Like Frandsen, Garcia’s OBP is a product of being able to hit as he does not take a lot of walks. Before the injury he had pretty good speed so it will remain to be seen if the injury affected that in any form. He does not have a lot of power but he has enough that he should be able to contribute in the form of hitting doubles with the occasional triple and home run. Defensively he has been pretty good at second but there are questions as to his arm strength for playing shortstop and third. He will most likely begin the year back at Reading again and is most likely at least a full year away from playing for the Phillies due to the setback of his injury.

The 22 year old Cartwright never even played for the Phillies at any minor league team after his acquisition from the Astros for lefty Sergio Escalona. He tore his Achilles a week into Spring Training and when he was healed he spent time at the Instructional level. Like Garcia he most likely will be playing at Reading this year with hopes to moving up to AAA by the end of the year. Cartwright has shown very good speed and extra base power in the minors and has a very good skill set and athleticism. How he rebounds from his injury may play into the Phillies infield picture, possibly into the outfield picture as well as the Phillies think he can also be used in the outfield.

Like Garcia and Cartwright, everyone else on the depth chart is more than a season away from the Major League level. Fidel Hernandez, Cesar Hernandez, and others are on the chart but are unable to help the Phillies at the Major League level this season and most likely not even the next, if ever in some cases. The depth chart may change over the next few weeks and Spring Training as the Phillies may bring in a veteran or two to give them more depth as teams sometimes cut loose extra players during the spring at positions of strength. Teams like the Dodgers, Reds, Orioles, and Blue Jays have a plethora of infielders trying to win one or two spots. If worst comes to worst, Luis Castillo and Edgar Renteria are still out there waiting for their phone to ring. If that route happens, you know things have gone bad.

Depth Chart: Chase Utley, Placido Polanco, Pray for Utley to be healthy, Pray for Polanco to be healthy, Michael Martinez, Ty Wigginton, Freddy Galvis, Pray for Utley to get healthy again, Pete Orr, Kevin Frandsen, The cupboard is bare of ML ready talent, Harold Garcia, Albert Cartwright, Troy Hanzawa, Cesar Hernandez, Fidel Hernandez

Up next: Shortstop

Be sure to check out the rest of this series:
Breaking Down the 2012 Phillies – The Infield: First Base
Breaking Down the 2012 Phillies – The Infield: Third Base
Breaking Down the 2012 Phillies – The Infield: Shortstop
Breaking Down the 2012 Phillies: Catcher
Breaking Down the 2012 Phillies: The Outfield
Breaking Down the 2012 Phillies: Pitching – The Rotation
Breaking Down the 2012 Phillies: Pitching – The Bullpen

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Barry Jeffrey Jr. writes “The Crow’s Nest” column for PSC.

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