When Chase Utley broke into the majors, he was an instant hit.
In fact, it was a hit that first enamored him to Phillies fans everywhere. In just the second game of his career, during only his 3rd Major League at bat, Utley recorded his first career hit when he blasted an Aaron Cook offering over the right field fence for a grand slam. I’m sure many of you recall this:
It was love at first site as Utley skyrocketed into stardom.
Phillies fans weren’t the only ones that took notice. All around the MLB, Chase’s astute work ethic, hard-nosed play and 5-Tool skill set catapulted onto the national stage.
From 2005-2009, his first 5 full seasons, Utley averaged just under 30 homers and around 100 RBIs per season while hitting no lower than .282 any of those seasons. For his work, he earned 4 All-Star appearances and 4 Silver Slugger awards.
As the 2009 season progressed, there was still no doubt that Utley was the best player at his position and one of the best players overall in the game.
However, that is when it all started to change for the slugger.
During that postseaon, Utley battled through an troublesome hip and was forced to have surgery come November. He was ready to play come opening day 2010, but something just did not seem right with the slugger.
When he hurt his thumb hustling to stretch a single into a double during a game against the Reds in late June, Utley was hitting just 277 with an 383 on-base percentage, while slugging a meager .466. All lower than in any of his previous 6 seasons.
He would play in just 115 games finishing the season with a .275 batting average, while slugging just .445, the lowest total since 2003, his first season in the big leagues (43 games).
2011 was an even worse year for Chase. Suffering from patellar tendinitis, Utley did not see his first game action until May 23rd, 47 games into the season. Utley took some time to get started and seemed well on his way to another solid season, even clipping the .290 average mark on August 1st, but a prolonged slump to finish the year ended his season totals to an .269 average, .344 on base, and a dismal .425 slugging; all way below what Utley had shown in previous years.
Talk began to swirl about the end of Chase Utley as an elite player and with the emergence of players like Robinson Cano in NY and Brandon Phillips in Cincy, doubters questioned his credentials as a top 2b in this league.
So where does that leave us in 2012?
Well, this upcoming season may just be the most important in Utley’s career; a season that could define what it has come to for Chase Utley.
The way I see it, this season could end up one of two ways:
First, Chase is healthy. At least all indications are that he is (*knocks on wood*). This can be the season that Utley pulls it all together and proves that he is still an elite player in this game. He can make his doubters eat their words. 2012 can be the time when Utley shows that he is still the same old Chase Utley on the field and not just in physical appearance.
The name “Chase Utley” still strikes the fear in the hearts of opposing teams left and right. Now, will his play on the field follow suit?
On the other hand, this season could spell doom for Utley. He could go out, and have a healthy season and yet see his numbers drop again thus proving those doubters correct. His prime has past him and now he sits a few levels below where he was at the start of his career. The thought of this is truly a saddening one.
So, the question that this season should help us answer hangs over the Phillies and their beloved superstar: Has Utley’s natural decline coupled with career slowing injuries finally started to cause the decline of the second baseman or is it just a matter of being healthy?
Will 2012 bring the elite Chase Utley or prove that he has lost that magic?
A question that only time will answer.
For Utley and the Phillies’ sake, I hope it’s the former.