Welcome back Chase Utley; farewell to his replacements


Chase Utley's return to the Philadelphia Phillies began with a home run in his first at-bat Wednesday. (Yong Kim/The Inquirer)

Chase Utley made a triumphant comeback to the Philadelphia Phillies Wednesday night, driving a ball deep into the seats in right-center field in his first at-bat and ending the night 3-for-5, which signals a possible return to normalcy for the Phightins.

Now, there’s a point to be made in that the Phillies are still five games under .500, and having Utley in the lineup didn’t earn them the win last night, but there’s still a lasting upside: With Utley back, second base is no longer a committee of triple-A level players. In the 76 games before Utley’s return, the combination of Freddy Galvis, Mike Fontenot, Michael Martinez and Pete Orr hit just  .246 at second, and although Utley won’t be playing every day for now, he will bear most of the burden.

Looking at his stopgap replacements, it’s clear they are less than MLB ready. Orr spent 10 games in the MLB while Martinez was hurt and hit a respectable .313 with five RBIs at second. Martinez came back from an injury to hit .136 in 13 games, and was quickly pushed to triple-A Lehigh Valley once Utley was activated. Galvis, the 22-year-old fielding wiz from Venezuela, hit .241 with 15 doubles in 50 games, but was recently suspended 50 games for a PED violation. That leaves Fontenot as the last remaining utility man, hitting a respectable .344 in 30 games (all hitting stats except Fontenot’s were only when they were playing second base) and earning the right to stay on as Utley’s backup. While his .259 batting average and 44 RBIs in 103 games last year may not be the shining light that will save the Phillies’ offense, having a major league-proven fielder adds a sense of validity and toughness that a rag-tag bunch of triple-A players lacks.

The combination of Galvis, Martinez, Orr and Fontenot really was a bit pitiful for a major league team. At first, Galvis got everyone excited with an amazing glove and .226 average in 58 games at shortstop and second. While his average may have been low, 19 of his 43 hits were for extra bases; pretty solid for an eight-hole hitter. Unfortunately, it came crashing down when it was revealed Galvis tested positive for Clostebol, a banned performance-enhancing drug. While players like Rick Ankiel have shown that a steroid user can return to the game and be successful, it will never be the same knowing that Galvis’ .363 slugging percentage was enhanced by the use of drugs.

As for Martinez, greatness was never expected. The Phillies’ Rule 5 pick in 2011, he spent the season stuck behind Wilson Valdez as the second utility man. A broken foot in spring training held Mini-Marts off the Phillies roster until early June, and his return was nowhere near as tremendous as Utley’s. His average was almost 70 points under the Mendoza Line, and he made a pair of errors in the field. Less than a month later, he was shipped back to the IronPigs. There he joins Canadian Orr, who spent 23 games in the MLB this year without much incident.

As mentioned earlier, this leaves Fontenot as the true utility man. The 32-year-old journeyman was signed to a minor league contract in April, and immediately made an impact in Lehigh Valley. In 16 games, he had 16 hits, a .308 average, a .481 slugging percentage and a quick call up to the majors. This is Fontenot’s seventh year with MLB service time, including three straight seasons (2008-2010) with at least 100 games played. Excluding 2011, where he hit just .227, Fontenot has a career batting average of .274, comparable to Shane Victorino‘s career .276 or Ty Wigginton‘s .264 mark. His numbers are fitting for an above-average utility man, and his glove work has proven capable of handling any of the infield positions.

So, what do these four guys have to do with the future of the team? Considering the combined WAR of the four is just 0.5 for this season (Martinez -0.4, Orr -0.1, Fontenot 0.4 and Galvis 0.6), adding a player with an average WAR of 5.6 means five more wins for the Phillies. If Utley had played since Opening Day at an average pace, that would statistically make the Phillies’ record 41-36, placing them just 3.5 games back in the NL East and closer to that second wild card spot. Of course WAR doesn’t win baseball games, but Utley’s offensive ability and flat-out prestige does. Utley is, or at least was, a perennial All-Star who wants nothing more than to win, and having a guy like that in the clubhouse means more confidence and more “swagger” (something Charlie Manuel was quoted as saying the Phillies lacked). While you can’t predict baseball, you can predict that having a steady second baseman will help the Phillies regain some confidence and add some tallies to the win column.

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