CLEARWATER, Fla. — Chase Utley does not have a timetable for his return to the Phillies, but does intend to play in 2012, and expressed optimism he can one day play without pain in his knees.
Utley spent last week in Phoenix visiting a therapist who suggested non-surgical treatments, like manual therapy, strength exercises and mobilizations of certain joints to treat the chondromalacia that has affected both of his knees. Utley said Sunday he will take the rehab process "fairly slow," only extending the vagueness that has dominated Phillies camp this spring.
"It's important to get everything around my knees working correctly," Utley said. "And I think it's going to take a little bit of time. I'm disappointed. I'm upset. I'm not happy that I'm in this situation right now, but I'm not going to let that deter me and get me down."
Utley missed the first 46 games of 2011 with the same condition. He said the pain was worse then, and it was mostly contained in his right knee. Now, he says, his left knee is the most problematic.
Both Utley and the Phillies bemoaned what they perceived as media-fueled speculation about his condition, but with a lack of information — especially from Utley — rumors spread. Utley laughed at the notion of retirement or even surgery.
"It's not bad enough to have microfracture surgery," Utley said. "It's not bad enough to end my career. It's an issue I'm going to have to deal with."
The 33-year-old second baseman claims his condition is not chronic, nor is it patellar tendinitis, two labels used often by general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. Chondromalacia is a roughening of the cartilage underneath the knee cap.
Utley consulted with Brett Fischer, a Quakertown native who has worked with dozens of professional athletes including Jim Thome and Donovan McNabb. Fischer suggested a new routine for Utley to adopt as he gradually increases activity.
"I've already seen benefits over the last four or five days from doing some new exercises," Utley said. "I'm very optimistic this is going to turn out well. But again it's going to take a little time and I have to do this right. I think it's important, not only for this year, but for the rest of my career. I'm 33 years old. I know some people think that's old, but I still feel like I have a lot of baseball left in me."
When asked why he waited until the end of spring training to consult Fischer, Utley claimed his altered winter workout routine had him positive he could begin the season. Ultimately, that was impossible.
"I felt pretty good but the more I tried to progress, it became just a little bit more uncomfortable," Utley said. "I slowed it down a little bit, tried to ramp it up again, and once I ramped it up again I knew it wasn't moving that great. So at that point I decided to seek his advice."
The spring has been filled with public half-truths and willful ignorance from the Phillies. Much of that could be attributed to Utley's desire to keep control of his own situation.
It did not stop those in charge from speaking with conviction.
"I don't think there's any chance he won't be ready opening day," Amaro said March 15. "We fully expect him to be ready opening day."
Four days later, when it was revealed Utley had left camp, Amaro was asked if he worried about the second baseman's career. He could not answer definitively.
"I worry about Chase because it's a chronic knee problem," he said. "About his career? I don't know."
On March 14, Charlie Manuel said he expected Utley to return to the field "pretty soon."
Two team sources said no players in the clubhouse were aware of the severity of Utley's problems and assumed he'd be starting the season. Even when Utley initially returned to camp, Manuel indicated he hadn't been briefed on the situation. "I'll sit right there until somebody comes and talks to me," the manager said Friday.
Amaro and Manuel have had their clashes regarding categorization of injuries this spring. When Manuel referred to Ryan Howard's February visit to a Baltimore doctor to clean an infection in his Achilles surgery wound as a "setback," Amaro sought to publicly clarify his manager's statements. Howard later spent some 24 days in a walking boot. Manuel has continued to use the word "setback" while others in the organization still refute the idea.
It has extended beyond injury talk, too. Amaro was bearish on Freddy Galvis as recent as March 16, when he said, "He's done well so far. But that doesn't mean he's a major-league second baseman yet."
On March 19, Amaro anointed Galvis the replacement for Utley. "He's not a developing player," Amaro said Friday. "He's ready to play defensively at the very least."
At the very least, that should be an indication the Phillies are thinking differently than their public face suggests. Multiple scouts who have watched the Phillies this spring have indicated Amaro is shopping for just about any useful offensive piece he can find, specifically middle infielders.
Whether that portends a long absence for Utley or lack of faith in the 22-year-old Galvis is unknown.
Contact Matt Gelb at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on Twitter @magelb.