The optimists project that Chase Utley will return to the lineup before the calendar flips to May. The pessimists project him that Memorial Day will have come and gone by at least a couple of weeks before Utley shows up in the Phillies lineup. Whichever is the case - and it's likely that it will be somewhere in-between - the Phillies could have an opportunity at second base.
The last time that Utley was out, the Phillies turned to Tadahito Iguchi to take over, which he did in fine fashion, hitting .304 in 45 games with the Phillies late in the 2007 season. At that time, Utley was out with a broken wrist and the Phillies turned to the Chicago White Sox to add Iguchi in a quickly arranged deal. The Phillies also turned to Iguchi this past season after he was released by the San Diego Padres and he responded with a 2-for-7 (.286) performance in a much reduced role with the club.
So, the question remains; will they look for a three-peat with Tadahito Iguchi?
|Tadahito Iguchi has been popular in his two stints in Philadelphia, but failed miserably in San Diego in 2008. Would the Phillies consider a third go-round with the second baseman?|
Not likely. Iguchi, who the Phillies assigned outright to Triple-A Lehigh Valley last week declined the assignment and became a free agent. He's hoping to land a starting job somewhere in the majors, although his performance in 2008 was well below where it has normally been in his career. Iguchi came into the season as a career .276 hitter, but hit just .232 in his stops in San Diego and Philadelphia. The soon-to-be 34 year old may have a tough time finding that starting gig that he's looking for and returning to Japan might be an option for him, although he prefers to stay in the majors. The fact that he's only ever played second base will also hamper him, since he won't be very valuable as a utility player, which is exactly the reason that the Phillies are unlikely to look to sign him, unless it would be on a very small or possibly even a minor league contract, which Iguchi isn't likely to take.
The other reason why Iguchi isn't deemed necessary has been blossoming in the Arizona desert this fall. Jason Donald finished the Arizona Fall League regular season with a .407 (37-for-91) average, good enough for second in the league and he definitely impressed anyone who saw him play. In fact, his performance, which included playing six games at second base, was given as one reason why the Phillies will consider him to fill in for Utley to start the 2009 season. Prior to the AFL, Donald had played exclusively at shortstop, but moved to second and also played eight games at third base in an attempt to add some more versatility to his resume. Besides his potential stint during Utley's absence, Donald could be on the short list to take over at third base when Pedro Feliz's contract expires after the 2009 season. The talented Donald played in the 2008 Futures Game and was both a mid-season and post-season Eastern League All-Star thanks to his 14-54-.307 performance with the Double-A Reading Phillies this past Summer.
Another viable option is to put Eric Bruntlett at second base to start the season. Bruntlett saw time at shortstop for the 2008 Phillies when Jimmy Rollins missed 28 games with an ankle sprain. Bruntlett hit .250 (26-for-104) as Rollins' replacement, but hit just .217 on the season for the Phillies. While Bruntlett also saw a good deal of time as a defensive replacement for Pat Burrell in left field this past season, his defense at second base is sub-par. His career fielding percentage as a second baseman stands at .954, well short of the average .982 percentage for second basemen since Bruntlett came into the league. Either with Bruntlett or an unproven Jason Donald, the Phillies second base defense figures to suffer while Utley is out.
Among relatively inexpensive free agents, the Phillies could look at 39 year old Damion Easley, who hit .269 in 113 games with the Mets last season, although 32 year old Jerry Hairston Jr. may make more sense. The Phillies have been linked to Hairston in the past and he played six different positions for the Reds in 2008, hitting .326 in 80 games. In fact, Hairston has played every position, except pitcher and catcher in his 11 year career and has a .260 lifetime average. His salary demands - he made just $525 thousand last season - are also likely to be very much in line with what the Phillies would be looking for in a utility player.
Hopefully, Utley's surgery will go well and there won't be a need for a long-term replacement for him. The Phillies have taken the optimistic approach and don't plan on altering their free agent search because of Utley's injury, but it's unclear whether Hairston might have been in their plans prior to Utley's diagnosis, which is possible given their past interest in him.