CLEARWATER, Fla. - Asked why the details of his rehabilitation program have been like a state secret, Chase Utley cracked a slight smile.
"I think you guys know me by now," the Phillies' second baseman said.
Which is true. If Utley had his druthers, the only people who would know he exists would be his family, teammates and opposing pitchers. But a perennial All-Star can not duck attention, particularly when his ailing right knee will force him to open the season on the disabled list. So yesterday, Utley met with reporters for the first time since March 9 to provide an update on his physical health. And, for the first time all spring, there was some good news.
Utley has started doing some light work in the field, something he had been doing only while seated on a stool. He declined to provide a timetable, other than to say he was targeting a return before the All-Star break. General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. also said that Utley was not a candidate for the 60-day disabled list. Although a team can place a player on that list at any time and backdate the injury to the last time he played - in Utley's case, the clock would start on Thursday - Amaro said his feeling is that there is a realistic chance Utley can be ready before his time on that list would expire. In other words, at some point before the end of May.
"Over the past few weeks I think we have made some progress for obviously the good and we're going to stay on top of what we've been doing," said Utley, who has been diagnosed with patellar tendinitis, chondromalacia and bone inflammation in his right knee. "So I'm optimistic at this point and we'll continue to do what we're doing and go from there."
Utley declined to provide details of his visit earlier this month to a doctor who the team has described as a rehab specialist. He did say that the Phillies' training staff was treating him with different stretching and massage techniques. Both the player and the team are determined to progress with caution, in hopes of avoiding a setback once he resumes the high-impact pounding that comes with nine innings spent on one's feet.
"That's why we're trying to take this process slowly and read how I'm responding," Utley said. "You might try something one day and see how you respond the next day and if it's OK and everything feels OK you can make progressions off of that. As long as we are moving in the right direction, I think we'll be OK."
Utley said he has consulted with several doctors, and the opinions they have offered have varied. He has been led to believe that surgery is not a clear-cut answer to treating his condition.
"You can talk to 10 different doctors and they might give you 10 different answers," Utley said. "There's a few types of surgeries that guys would recommend. None of them I feel that comfortable with at this point. I think we can alleviate this without surgery. But time will tell."
Utley said he has been told that surgery actually could make his condition worse.
"That's what a few doctors have said," he said. "Hey, listen, if surgery was the answer and I could be back on the field in 6 weeks guaranteed, it would be a no-brainer. But I don't think that's the case. It's a little unpredictable at this point, so I want to take as many steps as I can to avoid that surgery."
Utley flew with the team to Philadelphia, where he will continue his rehab with the training staff. At this point, everything else is still very much unknown.
The Phillies are bringing highly touted righthander Mike Stutes north for exhibition games against the Pirates tonight and tomorrow at Citizens Bank Park. But while Stutes impressed the team with his excellent spring, Charlie Manuel downplayed the likelihood of the 24-year-old starting the season on the major league roster.
"I like the way he throws," Manuel said. "We're taking those guys up there because we need people. He's going to be close by there [at Triple A Lehigh Valley]. We might want to stick him in a big-league game, just to see Citizens Bank [Park] . . . He's tough. Got a good fastball. Good late life on it.
"I don't rule nobody out. But at the same time, we are taking him there because it is very convenient. Plus, we might want to get him in the game."
Still, there are indications that the Phils are seriously considering Stutes. And because the IronPigs do not start their season until April 7, and minor league camp does not end until this weekend, it is unclear exactly how convenient Stutes' new travel plans will be.