Chase Utley out 4-6 months: fantasy fallout

Fantasy baseball managers everywhere were likely found gasping for breath today when news broke that Chase Utley is going to undergo surgery on his right hip. This will probably be the biggest question heading into the 2009 fantasy baseball drafting season. This is a similar situation to last season, when many were debating where to select Albert Pujols due to questions about his elbow. The difference in this case is that we know that Utley will be having surgery, so the questions are when he will return, and how effective he will be going forward.

Injury in review

It had been known throughout the midway part of the season that he was dealing with some hip pain, but it had apparently worsened in the waning months of the year. When exactly the hip pain began is not certain, but there has been word that he had irritated the joint during offseason workouts.

His decline in slugging percentage in the last three months of the season was notable (SLG% of .443, .477 and .443 in July, August, and September, respectively), though his monthly batting average splits actually held steady (.278, .294, .284). His .220 postseason batting average was a glaring downturn, however, despite smacking three home runs and totaling nine RBI. His .292 season average, though excellent, was significantly lower than the .332 average of 2007 and .309 in 2006. Whether this slide was due to his hip pain is anyone’s guess.

The issue with Utley’s hip is with the integrity of the acetabular labrum, which is a rim of cartilage that lines the outer aspect of the hip joint. It is often torn when the hip is repetitively forced into flexion (knee towards chest motion) and rotation—especially during weight bearing activities where the head of the femur (ball) approximates against the acetabulum (socket). When the cartilage tears, it either needs to be excised (removed) or repaired, depending on the size and location of the tear.

Clouding the situation is that it is not known if any additional damage is present to the bone or ligament structure of the hip joint. The more structures involved, the more sensitive the joint will be postoperatively, and the slower the progress will have to be, so as to not irritate the tissue during rehab. Bone trimming is a commonly-performed aspect of a hip labrum surgery because it increases the chances of a successful outcome. If a simple debridement of the labrum is needed, the recovery time would also be shorter than if a repair is performed. Keep in mind that Mike Lowell has a similar problem with the hip labrum, but he is only expected to miss two to three months, which means that the doctors probably know that his situation is worse than Lowell’s. The surgery is set for some time next week, so we should know more then.

Second base has historically been a fairly thin position in fantasy—though it has been a deeper position in recent years—but owners are probably wondering what this means for the 2009 season.

Where do I draft him?

For keeper league owners, this hip surgery is a huge point of interest. If you had/have the luxury of keeping Utley, there is no way you can leave him off your roster due to this…right? You have one of two options in keeper leagues:

1. Keep him, stash him, and draft a stopgap for the interim.
2. Release him, and hope that you can get him at a discounted price.

If it were my team, I would simply keep him. If you have budget issues, or really don’t want to gamble with an average second baseman, you might consider No. 2.

In yearly re-draft leagues, the immediate question is: Where do I select Utley? This is a very difficult question, mainly because of the cloudy prognosis for recovery. Depending on the damage within the joint, he could be out for as little as four months, or as long as six—we just don’t know yet. What we do know is that Utley apparently has an excellent pain threshold, and that he is young and extremely well-conditioned. His work ethic is well-known to be outstanding, so we have no need to worry about him slacking in his rehabilitation.

If he is out for only four or five months, that would put his return sometime in the end of March or April. With a four-month return, I would still draft him in the late first round or sometime in the second round—even despite any lingering questions about his health. A five-month return might force you to wait until the late second round or early third round.

If he has a more serious procedure, or if there are setbacks in his recovery, the six-month time frame would push his return into late-May or early June. In this scenario, you would be forced to bypass Utley in the first three rounds altogether, unless you are the gambling type (depending on who is being selected), or unless you have a very deep bench/DL roster and are comfortable with drafting an additional second baseman later in the draft.

If he is out until June, nobody would chastise you for bypassing Utley altogether and targeting a player like Ian Kinsler, Dustin Pedroia, Brian Roberts or Dan Uggla. Another point to remember is that many second basemen seem likely to slip far in drafts this year – Robinson Cano, Brandon Phillips and Yunel Escobar come to mind.

Not that this is any guarantee of his return date, but Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro, Jr. expects Utley to be back on time, or close to it: “Our feeling is that he’s going to be fairly close to ready, if not be ready, by Opening Day.”

What to expect production-wise

If no setbacks or major issues arise in the rehab process, I would expect Utley to return fully and without gross limitations. It is not uncommon for patients who undergo this type of surgery to have residual discomfort in the anterior (front) of the hip or groin region. Soreness is a common occurrence, and is usually alleviated by rehabilitative modalities, range of motion activities, manual therapy, and exercise.

Most of his limitations would likely be apparent with his defense and/or base running—if at all. In particular, getting into a low crouch to field a ground ball combined with pivoting to throw would be an activity that could create discomfort. Turning and exploding out of a lead from first base may also be difficult in the presence of an uncomfortable hip, so his stolen base totals could suffer early in the year. His ability to pull his hits to right field for power may initially be hindered, as he gets acclimated to rotating rapidly and forcefully over his front hip.

Once again, I am banking on a fairly quick recovery from Utley, so my projections are based on what I am anticipating. I would also figure the Phillies would give him some extra days off over the course of the season in any event:

Projections: 138 games, 514 AB, .292/.374/.520, 23 HR, 96 RBI, 9 SB

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