Amaro: Chase Utley not guaranteed starting spot
LOS ANGELES - In the two weeks since Chase Utley was placed on the disabled list, the updates on his health haven't been minimal - they've been nonexistent.
Yesterday afternoon at Dodger Stadium, Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said he "hadn't heard a word" on Utley, who has been dealing with a right ankle injury since January but played through it for the season's first 2 1/2 months. But then Mackanin did the math, and figured it wasn't going to an issue he'd have to deal with any time soon, since Utley - who hasn't begun to hit yet - is probably at least a month away from returning.
"And then what do you do? I don't know," Mackanin said of the potential dilemma of a healthy Utley available with Cesar Hernandez producing since taking over as the team's second baseman.
General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. has said for the last year that the manager writes out the lineup card, though.
"Does he wink when he says that?" Mackanin joked.
A few minutes later, Amaro took over Mackanin's seat inside the visiting dugout and eased the eventual burden for his interim manager, too. Amaro was asked, point-blank, if he considered Utley the Phillies' primary second baseman upon his return from the DL.
"Not for me, he's not," Amaro said. "Cesar Hernandez is our best second baseman."
Amaro didn't drop the mic. He kept answering questions for another 15 minutes.
So, uh, what happens when Utley returns?
"I would assume that Cesar will be our second baseman," Amaro said.
And has that unofficial, franchise-shifting decision been communicated to Utley, who has been mired in a seasonlong offensive funk, but also is considered a Phillies icon?
"I don't know if it has to be," Amaro said. "Chase's situation will kind of dictate itself, how he feels. There'll be time for him to play, I think. He could play some first base. He could play some second.
"But as far as I'm concerned, just like what our plan has been for a long, long time, and that's to give opportunities to young men who could be part of our future. Cesar Hernandez has been one of our best players on the field right now in a variety of ways - running the bases, playing defense, playing with energy. He can switch-hit. He can run. He's doing a lot of the things that we want to see out of our young players."
Utley hasn't produced this season, or for the better part of the last calendar year.
Before taking his declining bat to the DL, Utley was hitting .179 with a .532 OPS in 65 games.
Utley did represent the Phillies at the All-Star Game a year ago this month, but that was really the result of two productive months to start the 2014 season. Since June 1 of last season, Utley is hitting .220 with a .618 OPS and 11 home runs in 687 plate appearances over 170 games.
Amaro's proclamation that Hernandez was the team's "best second baseman" wasn't just a nod to the productive three weeks the 25-year-old has had; it's an acknowledgment of where the 36-year-old, six-time All-Star is in his own career.
Asked about Amaro's comments, Utley kept his words brief before taking the field with his teammates for pregame stretch at Dodger Stadium yesterday afternoon.
"Well, I think Cesar has done a really good job - there you go," Utley said.
Here's what Hernandez has done since he began playing regularly three weeks ago, when former manager Ryne Sandberg used the designated hitter to get both Utley and Hernandez on the field in Baltimore: He has hit .410 (32-for-78) with a .965 OPS and 10 stolen bases in 20 games entering last night. Since June 21, Hernandez had reached base safely in 15 straight games and had 28 hits, five more than any other major leaguer. On the season as a whole, Hernandez was hitting .302 with a .771 OPS. He led the Phillies with 23 walks.
Speaking of plate appearances, Utley went on the disabled list with 249 in the season's first 2 1/2 months. In order to return to the Phillies next season, Utley has to reach 500 plate appearances this season; if he is able to do that, a $15 million vesting option for 2016 kicks into his contract.
But since Utley likely isn't due back until late July at the earliest, he would be returning with less time on the Phillies schedule than he has already played in. So it would seem highly unlikely he would reach 500 plate appearances even if he was reinstalled as the everyday second baseman.
Utley has held that spot for more than a decade, while hitting in the middle of the lineup during what was arguably the most successful era in Phillies history. But the team committed to a rebuild last winter.
With the first year of that rebuild coinciding with Utley's rapid decline as an everyday hitter, perhaps Amaro was simply stating the obvious yesterday.