Originally posted on Phillies Nation  |  Last updated 3/20/12

So we’ve learned that Chase Utley probably won’t be ready for Opening Day, a reality many of us assumed but wanted badly not to hear this season.

In the last episode of Phillies Nation TV, Pat asked why Utley hadn’t yet seen an inning in the field or a plate appearance against live pitching. It was a valid question that offered more and more room for pessimism the longer you thought about it.

Sure, resting Utley was logical. But if he was going to be OK, why not give him an inning a week or a few at-bats just to catch him up to speed? Jimmy Rollins has dealt with plenty of injuries to his lower-half and he’s been out there regularly this Spring. It just didn’t bode well and on Monday, Phillies Nation (the collective, not the site), awoke to a nightmarish scenario that may turn out to be passable, but may usher in the end of the Chase Utley era in Philadelphia.

That’s the longer-term scenario we’re looking at here. Utley is 33 with a contract that expires after next season and knees that will never get better. The last part of that sentence has been stated both subtly and explicitly by Charlie Manuel and Ruben Amaro.

Utley is missing cartilage in his knee, and as Amaro put it Monday, “you just can’t grow back cartilage.” There is likely bone-on-bone friction in Utley’s knee(s), and all you have to do is imagine the feeling of moving laterally with bones rubbing each other to understand why such a cautious approach is necessary and why Utley is probably destined for DH-duty in his next deal.

This isn’t a curable condition, it’s one you attempt to manage, but the fact remains that nobody in the Phillies organization knows what is going to happen with Utley in 2012, much less 2013 and beyond. I can guarantee you that nobody in the front office is thinking about how to approach Utley’s next contract because no one knows what he’ll be 18 months from now.

It’s an incredibly sad situation. Utley was on a Hall-of-Fame pace through the end of 2009, when he was averaging a .301/.388/.535 slash-line with 32 homers and 43 doubles in full seasons while playing elite defense (top-1 or top-2 in the sport) at a premium position.

Utley was the player that separated the Phillies from other teams.

This was before Roy Halladay, and for half of 2009, before Cliff Lee. It was after Cole Hamels’ stellar postseason run but before he turned into a four-pitch demon. Utley was what was different about the Phillies. A patient hitter who could hit the ball anywhere, for power and average, reach balls to his left and right that 25 second basemen can’t glove and run the bases exceptionally.

Now, he’s a shell of that.

If Utley misses several weeks or several months, the Chase that returns won’t be the one who hit five homers against the Yankees in the 2009 World Series. It’ll be the Zombie Utley we’ve seen in 2010 and 2011 that hits .278 with a .800 OPS.

We’ll delve into the analysis of what Utley’s absence means in the coming weeks. Hopefully Freddy Galvis proves in early-April that his Spring success was just minimally fluky. Hopefully Galvis gets off to a hot enough start that we don’t have to hear about why the Phillies traded the eminently replaceable Wilson Valdez.

In the meantime though, the real story is how quickly and unfortunately a Hall-of-Fame career was derailed.

Chase Utley could have been one of the all-time greats. Instead, I fear he’ll be viewed outside of Philadelphia as one of many players who merely had a great five-year peak.

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