The Phillies are going to lose around 100 games this season, and will do so on merit. The presence of the Milwaukee Brewers might keep them from being the worst team in the National League, but that thin comfort won't spare them a single step of the long, depressing march to October.
None of this qualifies as surprising. The Phils, with perhaps one notable exception, were expected to be exactly this bad. The exception, however, happens to be a player who ranks among the franchise's top 10 for career at-bats, hits, runs, total bases, runs batted in, extra bases, and home runs.
The exception is Chase Cameron Utley, and this is a big problem. How the Phillies choose to deal with Utley's situation, if it continues, will say a lot about how they build a team for the future. How Utley handles things will be just as crucial for an organization trying hard not to drive away the remaining fans who come to the park.
Entering Tuesday night's game in Atlanta, Utley was batting .103 and riding a 4-for-62 streak in 17 games since he homered twice against the Mets on April 14. He was not in the starting lineup. The manager, the general manager, and the player himself have said all the expected things about the season being young and about balls being hit sharply that were caught. The advanced metrics of the day don't really back up the latter assertion and, as for the former, well, it isn't April anymore.
The mathematics of the game quickly become daunting for a player who begins in such a hole, even if Utley's start is merely a slump and not a new reality. He would have to hit .330 over the next 40 games or so just to get to an average of .250 by midseason. Is that likely? Is it even possible? The question is not just who Chase Utley is right now, but who he will be by the end of the year and, more important for the Phillies, who he will be next season and beyond.
If it is shocking that Utley's performance might have rolled off the table this quickly, it is only because he has been such a constant for a decade. He never changes, not even his expression. It was a given that watching Ryan Howard flail around this season would be painful, but Utley, particularly after a strong spring training, was supposed to act as a familiar bridge from yesterday to tomorrow. So far, not so much.
The shock isn't that a 36-year-old would have diminishing production. In fact, Utley was trending that way last season, hitting .235 in the second half after earning an all-star selection with a .293 first half of the year. The shock is just how stark the numbers are at the moment. According to FanGraphs, the percentage of hard-hit balls by Utley is less than half what it was in 2014. Balls that once got through for base hits are now being corralled in the infield.
Well, what to do? There is no indication the Phillies are going to do anything in the short term, and they shouldn't. It isn't as if there is some hot, young prospect pushing Utley from behind. Of the five players who have split time at second base in Reading and Lehigh Valley, none is younger than 27.
In the long term, however, particularly as the franchise tries to get out from under the long shadow of 2008, there is a difficult and potentially unpopular decision to make. Utley is in the last guaranteed year of his contract. He will get another season, at $15 million, if he has 500 plate appearances this year. (It is the first of three identical vesting options which, if met, would tie Utley to the Phillies through the 2018 season, which ends two months before his 40th birthday.)
It is hard to imagine the Phillies taking him out of the lineup for an extended period, but it has to happen sometime. Otherwise, Utley will continue to stoically march to the plate all of this season and for three seasons after that. The man has stood without flinching and been hit by a pitch 171 times in his career. He can withstand a lot.
The question is how much of Chase Utley can the Phils withstand if he is Chase Utley only in the pages of the record book. The question, unless something changes soon, will only get louder. A batting average of .103 in May is pretty loud, as it is.