Baseball prospects typically knock on the big clubhouse door for several tantalizing seasons, biding their time in the minor leagues, waiting for an opening in the Show. Along the way they are invited to Spring Training, though they seldom survive final cuts. Come September, they may get what's known as "a cup of coffee" in the majors, a few dozen garbage-time at bats, protected from the glare of divisional races. Then it's back to the minors the following year for yet a little more seasoning. The path to the majors is especially tough on contending teams stacked with proven veterans, as the Phillies have been for the last several years.
Placido Polanco was one of the best second sackers in the league last season, making just 3 errors in 571 chances, including 76 double plays. Most people can't pick up their car keys 571 times without at least 3 drops. Think how many times your TV remote hits the floor. The 2004 Phillies achieved the second highest fielding percentage in all of baseball (.987) thanks in large part to Polanco.
As a hitter, Polanco was one of the Phillies best, batting .298 with 17 home runs. On a team that strikes out too much, Polanco was one of the league's toughest to punch out, whiffing just 39 times in 503 at-bats. Polanco's tenacious approach was refreshing in a lineup saddled with too many easy, unproductive outs. He ran deep counts and made good contact while his teammates often flailed wildly and whiffed.
The only knock against Polanco's 2004 season is that he struggled in the opening months to hit in the clutch. Polanco's batting average with runners in scoring position (RISP) and two outs was a feeble .194, more than a hundred points lower than his overall batting average (.298). After the all-star break, as his injuries abated, Polanco's performance in the clutch improved. But the damage had already been done.
Chase Utley, on the other hand, has shown the opposite tendency, a sublime knack for driving in runs. In fact, in just 267 at bats, Utley drove in 57 runs, two more RBI than Polanco managed in 503 at bats. Take a moment to think about that. Two more RBI in 236 fewer at bats.
This RBI differential is party due to the fact that Utley hit lower in the order and often pinch hit, when runners are more likely on base. But it's also a factor of his much higher batting average in the clutch. With runners in scoring position (RISP) and two outs, Utley's batting average (.310) was 44 points higher than his overall batting average (.266). As a result, Utley had twice as many RBI as Polanco with RISP and two outs (22-11) in just a third as many chances (42-62). Amazing numbers for the Pasadena Kid.
The fact is, Chase Utley has been downright deadly in the clutch. He's a "red light" player who thrives under pressure. "Red light" players are those rare gamers with a special ability to consistently deliver when its needed most. They have an aura about them, a lethal focus, the hush of greatness. They seize the moment. Chase Utley looks every bit the "red-light" role. He has a compact swing with some pop and a decent idea of the strike zone. He has shown a flair for high drama, repeatedly stunning the crowd with late game heroics.
In particular, recall the game early last July against the arch-rival Braves. You know the one. Bottom of the ninth. Philly backs against the wall, down a run. Premier closer John Smoltz pitching at the top of his game, hissing cobra strikes at the corners. Chase Utley connects with an evil pitch at his shoe tops, sending a majestic blast over the right field fence and handing Smoltz just his second blown save in seventeen chances. It was an utterly wicked, un-hittable pitch, buggy-whipped below the knees at the inside corner. Out of the nearly 60,000 witnesses that night in Philadelphia, only Chase Utley wasn't shocked he hit it out. Tomas Perez later won the game in the tenth with a single off Antonio Alfonseca. After the game, even Smoltz gushed about Utley's blast. "I didn't throw a bad pitch and I blew a save," Smoltz said. "I could tell him it's coming 19 more times and he wouldn't hit it." When great players do great things, all you can do is tip your cap.
It was likely on that very summer night that Phillies GM Ed Wade first understood - the Pasadena Kid is a natural born gunslinger. Cool under fire. In the off-season, Wade declared Chase Utley the 2005 Phillies starting second baseman and went on an all-out campaign to deal Placido Polanco to another team. Even as the deals were heating up and taking shape, Polanco shocked everyone by accepting arbitration and making it much harder to make a trade. Eventually the market shifted and trade talks died out. When all was said and done, Polanco remained a Phillie, a surprising outcome for both parties.
Polanco's return presents an awkward situation for new manager Charlie Manuel. A bona-fide major league starter, Polanco is a man without a position as Utley takes over second base. Good managers don't mess with a young player's psyche by handing him the job and then taking it away again without a fair shot. Utley, who is having an excellent Spring, should start the season at second and get at least 150 at bats before his job comes into question. Meanwhile, through three quarters of Spring Training, Polanco is the league's tenth best hitter at .429. With Utley at second base, what will Manuel do with Polanco?
Clearly you want to favor the hot hand. The one thing a manger should never do is mess with success. Polanco's scorching start has earned him a long look in the early going, at least until his batting average begins to look human. There are still ten games left in Spring Training, but you just don't sit a guy like Polanco when he's hitting .429. Polanco is the one of the most versatile defenders in the major leagues, playing second, third and shortstop with skill and panache.
One option is to let Polanco start the season at third base while David Bell works back into playing shape. Bell has not had much of a spring while recovering from severe back spasms. Bell's back troubles produce an "uh-oh-here-we-go-again" effect. He had a dismal season in 2003, when back problems held him to a pathetic .195 batting average in 297 at bats. Last season, Bell rebounded beautifully, having his best season ever. Meanwhile, after aggravating his back early this Spring, Bell is 3 for 8 in his first grapefruit games. He insists he will be ready when the regular season bell rings, but there is no need to rush him with Polanco playing so well. The last ten games of Spring Training should show whether or not he is fully healed. If Bell is healthy and stays strong, he should hold on to his job. But odds are he could use a little extra time getting back to speed, at least as long as Polanco stays scalding hot.
If Bell holds on to third base, where do you play Polanco? For now, he must be content as first man off the bench while spot-starting in the infield. You hope he stays positive and patient as he waits for his chance as a regular. These things have a way of working themselves out as the season progresses. Rarely will the opening day starters stay healthy and productive all season long. Polanco is wonderful insurance against an injury or prolonged slump among the infielders. At a certain point the Phillies will be making a trade and Polanco offers them versatility. Whether he stays or goes, Polanco is a proven major league starter who won't remain content with a limited role all season long. Sooner or later, something's gotta give.
Such is the drama that Chase Utley created. "Red Light" players will do that.