Polanco Injury Could Fuel the Fires of Change

The injury to Placido Polanco could wind up putting the Phillies in a rather tough position. Polanco's visit to the disabled list means that Chase Utley is back up in the majors to take his place. It doesn't take a Hollywood script writer to figure out that the Phillies infield could be headed for a big time controversy in the not too distant future.

As a first round draft pick, Chase Utley has garnered a lot of attention in his relatively short professional career. The fact that he would be a part of the Phillies team this season seemed a foregone conclusion until the unexpected signing of outfielder Doug Glanville. That move created a battle for the final roster spot in spring training and even though Utley had a solid spring, he wound up being the odd man out and got a ticket back to AAA Scranton Wilkes-Barre.

While Utley's spring exit wasn't popular, Glanville has been a fairly pleasant surprise and is hitting .273 in his part-time role with the Phillies. His presence as a late inning defensive replacement, a pinch-hitter in key spots and a positive influence in the clubhouse have been appreciated by the Phillies. Was it the right move? Who's to say? Had Utley stayed, how much playing time would he have gotten and would he have been productive? We all assume that Utley would be productive, but nobody truly knows for sure.

Polanco was apparently waging a silent battle with a sore thigh muscle throughout the season. It's actually the same injury that sent him to the disabled list last season and he had resigned himself to simply playing through pain as the injury came back to haunt him. Polanco was hitting just .223 with only one RBI – coming on a solo homerun – when the injury occurred. Defensively, he was also shaky at times, but generally played a decent second base. Polanco's offensive shortcomings were somewhat overlooked and overshadowed by the other infield "situations" that the Phillies were facing this season.

One of those situations, the health of David Bell, has played out pretty well. Bell has had some minor aches and pains, but none are lingering affects from the injuries that sidelined him last season. Some tendinitis in his shoulder caused some throwing problems, leading to errors, but a cortisone shot apparently took care of that and Bell has been putting up decent numbers in the early going. Lately especially, Bell has been swinging a hot bat and has raised his season average to .272 and his 14 RBI puts him fourth on the team.

The biggest concern on the infield has been Jimmy Rollins. The young shortstop had spent a lot of time this spring talking about how impressed he was by the play of Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo of the Marlins and how he now saw what he could do by learning how to play "small ball". Rollins spent time this past winter with none other than Tony Gwynn and worked on his approach to the game. It all sounded great and this spring, Rollins even attempted to lay down a couple bunts in spring training games. Then, the real games started and there was Rollins in his familiar swing for the fences pose. The result has been a .185 average with 13 strikeouts. The man who Larry Bowa himself thought would be a clone of the Phillies manager in his playing days appears to be much more like Steve Jeltz with every passing day.

So, now with Polanco on the DL and Utley back in the major league lineup, we wait and see. We wait and see where this will all lead. It doesn't figure that things will get too choppy until about the time that Polanco is getting close to returning. Then what? Let's assume that Utley is putting up good numbers. We don't have to say he's looking like a Hall of Famer, but he's playing well. There will be cries for Polanco to ride the bench when he returns. There may be cries for Glanville or possibly even Jason Michaels to be the next odd man out and for Utley to stick with the major league club. If Bell slumps, there will be cries to move Polanco to third and keep Utley at second. There may also be cries to have Polanco take over at short for Rollins instead of at second for Utley.

The truth is that Chase Utley is ready for the majors. He was ready at the beginning of the season and he's certainly ready now. The truth also follows that not every player who is ready for the majors is playing in the majors. Utley doesn't have any set claim to a major league job. Let's face it, he wasn't dazzling in his major league audition last season. He will be a very good major league player, likely in the near future, but potential and promise don't bring wins. Having said that, Utley's time back at AAA is being wasted. The Phillies offense has struggled to the point where they need to find someone who will add something to the lineup. If Utley is playing well when Polanco is healthy, he deserves to stick with the team, that's the first step. Deciding whether it's in a utility role or as a starter is the next step. A righty-lefty platoon with Utley and Polanco could work out pretty well.

While a lot will depend on how Utley and the Phillies as a whole are playing, there are a couple of things that need to be considered. The biggest is Rollins. The Jimmy Rollins replica jersey that was hanging in my den is now hanging comfortably in the dark recesses of my den closet. Perhaps, Rollins should take the same place in the Phillies game plan. One of the young Phillies that I thought would be so great has failed and in more ways than just statistically.

Consider that the Phillies tried to sign Rollins to a long-term deal in the not too distant pass and he passed, opting instead to sign one-year deals. The kid is inching closer and closer to free agency and perhaps having learned a thing or two from the Scott Rolen controversy, may be taking a different approach. There has been a silent message that Rollins is more than slightly interested in testing the free agency waters. Rolen said it out loud, Rollins has been more subtle.

Consider that Rollins lip service to changing his style of play has been an on-going process. We hear him talk long and hard about being a different player and he simply isn't. He is the same talent soaked, speed blessed player who is swinging through an awful lot of good pitches when he could simply be hitting them where they ain't as the saying goes. When in doubt, run the numbers. Rollins has struck out 13 times and gotten himself out swinging at high fastballs that he thought he could drive on numerous occasions. What if on just six of those occasions where Rollins either struck out or got himself out on bad pitches, he had played "small ball" and put the ball in play for a hit? Those six little hits would have his average at .250 for the season. Not a great number, but much better than what he's done. You have to figure that if he stayed away from the high fastballs and used the bunt to pull the third basemen in he could have come up with six – and likely, many more – hits somewhere along the line. Or, if he just stayed away from the high fastballs and drew walks. The bottom line is that with little effort, Rollins could be helping the Phillies in so many ways and he refuses to do so.

Unless Utley is really struggling when Polanco is ready to return, there is bound to be some controversy about who goes where. There will likely be a couple different ways that the Phillies will be able to proceed. There will also likely be some discussions about short-term versus long-term. The Phillies may have to decide whether their best interests are served in keeping Rollins or perhaps in seeing what the trade market might bring for him. If Bell continues to hit, should the Phillies figure that his stock might not get much higher and it will be the perfect time to trade him? Perhaps sending Michaels elsewhere, whether to AAA or as part of a trade would answer things correctly. His stock is fairly high and there are a lot of teams that believe he could be an everyday player in the majors.

However it turns out, the Polanco injury may have forced the Phillies hand in deciding some issues. Rest assured though that there will be plenty of opinions from plenty of people when Polanco is ready to return to the lineup.

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