CLEARWATER, Fla. - Time, not an MRI machine, will reveal whether the pain in Chase Utley's right knee is a momentary February concern or the first sign of bigger problems.
Most of what time does isn't good - not for professional athletes and the bodies they push and punish and abuse. As much as he comes across as some kind of android - a baseball-bot programmed to hit and catch and run, but not to feel or speak or indulge in other human behavior - Utley turns out to be made from the same fragile stuff as the rest of us.
The diagnosis on his right knee was tendinitis in the tendon that connects the kneecap to the lower leg. With rest and treatment, the pain should subside and Utley will return to the field. As Utley and general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. described the situation, it sounded like no big deal.
Listen a little closer, though, and you can hear the tick-tick-tick of the clock that has been running since this team started winning division titles back in 2007. Everyone who cares about these Phillies, from Amaro to the average fan, understands that clock is going to reach all zeros at some point.
The extraordinary moves of the last few years - signing Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee, trading for Roy Oswalt - were made to get the most out of this core of everyday players while they're still in their primes. Utley, Jimmy Rollins, and Ryan Howard - the Big Three who inspired creation of the Four Aces - all had mediocre 2010 seasons (by their standards). Injuries affected all three.
There is not going to be an official announcement when this core hits its expiration date. It doesn't work that way. Gradually, over time, skills erode and bodies give out and hard decisions get made.
So it is reasonable to wonder where this knee pain of Utley's fits on the time line. He said Sunday that he's experienced it in the past, that it would last for a day or a week and then go away. This time, the pain was bad enough for long enough that Utley decided to tell the team's athletic trainers.
Was that a change? Would he have played through something like this in the past?
"More than likely," Utley said. But now, he said, "I think at this point it's better to be safe than sorry. I'd rather miss some games down here than miss some games during the season."
That can be read two ways. It could be that Utley has matured and realized that you can't just put your head down and run through everything as if it were a catcher blocking the plate. His team will be better off if he takes the occasional break and stays healthy for the long haul.
"We really just want to slow him down a little," Amaro said.
But the other possibility - and really, both can be true at the same time - is that Utley's knee is hurting more and for longer because Utley is 32 instead of 24 or 28 or 30. This is how it happens. You don't get a notice in the mail one day that you're aging. Things just ache a little more and with less apparent cause.
It's funny, in a way. Utley is figuring out as he ages that he needs to back off and let his body rest at times. Rollins came into camp talking about how he realized he has to work harder on his body, that he can't just rely on his natural gifts as much. Both have been vital pieces in the Phillies winning puzzle, even if they got there from opposite directions. Their ability to maintain their health and their skill level over the next few years will go a long way toward determining whether this era sees one championship or several.
Here's the other worrisome aspect of all this. In 2007, when Utley broke a bone in his hand, the Phillies traded for Tad Iguchi to fill in at second base. He hit .304, played steady defense, and the Phillies went on to win the division title. Iguchi was making $3.25 million that year.
With their payroll edging toward $160 million for 2011, can the Phillies make that kind of move now? Can they count on Wilson Valdez to carry the load if Utley or Rollins get hurt? What if both are out at the same time?
That's not a complaint. It's just the inevitable consequence of investing such enormous resources in a few elite players. That investment is expected to pay off in another parade or two over the next few years.
Time will eventually catch up to the Phillies core group. It gets everyone. You just wonder whether it gained another step on Utley.