Chase Utley returns to the lineup tonight for the Philadelphia Phillies.
If the rumors are true – and all indications point to that being the case – then the return of Chase Utley is nigh. The second baseman, who has spent the entire season to this point rehabbing his knee injuries, is back on the team, back in the lineup, and back to help the Phillies get on track.
Like I said last night, his offensive contributions should have an immediate impact on the team when you consider just who he is replacing.
And while that is well and good, the Phillies have more pressing concerns right now than adding another bat to the lineup. Yes, Utley is more than just “another bat,” and under most circumstances, this team would be thrilled to add a dynamic offensive weapon like him, but honestly, I'm not sure how much of an impact that is going to have on the overall scheme of things.
That's not to say that Chase won't have a really positive impact on the team, because he most assuredly will. With him in the lineup instead of Michael Martinez or Mike Fontenot, they'll get a boost in every way imaginable. Suddenly, the lineup is a bit deeper, and maybe all those games where they trail after the eighth inning aren't automatic losses anymore.
But the bigger issue, as I see it, is not the offense. The Phillies are fifth in the National League in runs scored, and are above league average in every other offensive category. That doesn't mean they are setting the world on fire with the bats, but they are doing enough to stay in games, and we can all agree that the offense – while maddening at times – has been surprisingly good, especially compared to how bad we thought they would be.
The issue is that the Phillies can't hold their leads at the end of the game. With a few exceptions, the rotation has been fine, and the last guy to get handed the ball – Jonathan Papelbon – has been superb in closing out games. But the hairy part are those two or three innings after the starter leaves and before Papelbon enters.
Unlike the last few years, when the Phillies were stacked in the late innings and could mix and match with their relievers until getting to the closer, the Phillies have few good options this season. Aside from Antonio Bastardo, who is not without his own problems, there isn't much else in the back end of the 'pen to give fans much confidence when nursing a one run lead.
You have Chad Qualls, a sinker-baller who is sometimes brilliant more but more often panic inducing. Then you have Raul Valdes, who is doing a fantastic job this season (1.84 ERA and 10.4 K/9), but at 34-years-old, you have to wonder if he can perform like that for the duration. Finally, there is Jake Diekman, a young lefty who can strike out the world, but suffers from bouts of control along the way.
Then there are the rest, the Michael Scwhimers and Joe Saverys and B.J. Rosenbergs of the world. Guys who are there to provide innings and the occasional strikeout, but are otherwise mixed bags and are thusly not able to be counted upon when the games is on the line.
Ultimately, the 'pen is a work in progress. You have Papelbon, who is great, then Bastardo, who is really good, then the rest. Some are better than others, but if you have lead, then you really need some known commodities to help you get those final nine outs.
Hopefully, Chase's return will help net them a few more victories and get them closer to the top of the division, so that when the trade deadline comes, then can be in a position to trade for a solid, late-inning reliever. Because that's all that could be missing between this team and a sixth straight playoff appearance.