Utley’s injury an ominous development for Phillies

Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins have the MVPs. Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee have the Cy Youngs. But anyone who knows baseball understands that Chase Utley is the most indispensable member of the Philadelphia Phillies.

That -- and the Phillies’ status as the consensus favorites to stroll into the World Series this season -- explains why Utley’s lingering knee injury has become perhaps the biggest story in the Grapefruit League at the moment. As we’re all aware, the Phillies may have one of the best rotations in baseball history. But I don’t care if they have a rotation of Cy Young, Warren Spahn, Sandy Koufax, Tom Seaver and Greg Maddux -- without Utley, they would be in trouble. (Enough trouble to make one wonder whether the young, on-the-rise Atlanta Braves squad might be poised to unseat the Phillies atop the NL East.)

The Phillies broke a few days’ silence on Utley’s situation Wednesday morning by issuing a statement essentially saying they are gathering more information on Utley’s condition. They are not taking the surgical route, but they are not ruling it out. This, after a cortisone shot last week failed to improve Utley’s condition. (In case you were wondering, the Phillies say Utley has chondromalacia, inflammation and tendinits.)

Off the top of my head, I can’t recall another spring when so many cornerstone players are dealing with worrisome injuries. It began with the St. Louis Cardinals losing ace Adam Wainwright for the season with a torn elbow ligament. On Tuesday, the Milwaukee Brewers said ace Zack Greinke will miss the start of the season with a fractured rib. With Carlos Beltran still unable to play this spring due to sore knees, the New York Mets could be without their No. 1 starter (Johan Santana, out with a shoulder injury) and their cleanup hitter for large chunks of the season. Los Angeles Angels first baseman Kendry Morales still can’t run some 10 months after breaking his leg in a walk-off celebration.

But given the Phillies’ expectations, and Utley’s status as their No. 3 hitter and best all-around player -- at a time when there are serious questions about the Phillies’ aging offense -- the injury to Utley is the most ominous of all. The lack of certainty over the extent of the injury and how it will be handled makes it doubly so.

Dave Sheinin has been covering baseball and writing features and enterprise stories for The Washington Post since 1999.

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