With Chase Utley Out, the Phillies Should Turn to Luis Castillo

With the season just a few days away, the Phillies should look the way of Luis Castillo to fill Utley's shoes. But they won't because he just got released.

UPDATE: According to Bob Brookover, Luis Castillo has been released by the Phillies. That was quick. The 40-man spot that was cleared by removing Matt Rizzotti (who cleared waivers and returned to the team) was for one of Delwyn Young, Michael Stutes, or the dark horse Pete Orr. So much for the rest of this article...

Wasn't everything supposed to be daisies after the Phillies signed Cliff Lee?

Well it certainly hasn't been, and the Phils will go into the 2011 season with three would-be starters on the DL in Domonic Brown, Chase Utley, and Brad Lidge, who I'm calling a starter for argument's sake. While Brown and Lidge were figuring to be two important pieces in a Phillies World Series run from the get-go, the injury that hurts the most is the Chondromalacia to Chase Utley's knee. He's the best second basemen in the game, and though they've filled his shoes in 2007 and 2010, so this is not exactly uncharted territory.

But Chase answered a reporter's question yesterday by saying a return by the All-Star Break is the goal. By my count, that's 92 games.

92.

That would leave 70 games for him to play before the playoffs start, presuming (perhaps unwisely) that the Phillies will make the playoffs. Chase hasn't played less than 115 games since his rookie year at Batavia, and that was after he finished his high school full senior season. Regardless of who Charlie Manuel chooses to replace him, the production will not measure up in the least.

Last year, Wilson Valdez posted a 79 OPS+ in 363 at-bats backing up Utley, Jimmy Rollins, and Placido Polanco. Valdez appears to be the frontrunner to start the season at second, representing a huge dropoff in offensive production from Chase, who has a career OPS+ of 129. While Valdez was actually a slight improvement over Chase in defensive metrics, he doesn't rival Chase's ability in any other area.

Luis Castillo is another option. While his speed has decreased in recent years, he's still a threat at the plate because of how good he is at getting on base. He swings at just under a third of the pitches he sees, which directly contributes to last season's walk percentage of 13%, better than Utley in any season of his career. Though his extra base hit percentage was a criminally low 2.0% last year, the Phillies should have enough power to cover up his deficiencies.

Detractors will point to his age and low statistics across the board, but with a 63% ground ball percentage, his absurdly low BABIP of .259 will come closer to his career norm of .329 and bolster his averages all around. Bill James projects that with a BABIP of .307, he'll have a triple slash of .275/.361/.325, closer to his '09 season with the Mets than his '10.

In terms of the lineup, Luis would slip into the 8th hole nicely, right between Carlos Ruiz and the pitcher's spot. Getting on base would allow the pitcher to bunt him over easily and set up a quick runner at second base for the top of the order. And his propensity to take pitches would help turn the lineup over that much easier.

Without the use of Utley and Jayson Werth, the Phillies will need to find other ways to score to give the rotation some room to breathe. The potential for smallball with Castillo, Rollins, and Shane Victorino is not one they should ignore. Pesky guys on the basepaths make things really difficult for opposing pitchers, especially when Ryan Howard comes up and there's nowhere to put him. The biggest hindrance to Castillo starting the season at 2nd base is that he hasn't played all that much in preseason. In 46 spring at-bats, his on-base percentage is at a respectable .358 (not including his base hit tonight). Though the confusion of when he should have reported to camp may have gotten a bit overblown, there's a good chance Valdez will at least begin the season as the everyday second baseman.

Valdez gets a lot of credit for the season he had last year, but statistically it wasn't all that impressive. He did a serviceable job and deserves to be on the bench with Rule 5 draftee Michael Martinez, who impressed the coaching staff this Spring and is expected to stay with the big club. And because of his versatility, Valdez can back up the whole infield, while Luis can only play 2nd.

Plus, how great would it be to see the Phillies beat the Mets using the second baseman they'd be paying $5.5 million to play for another team?

Losing guys for half the season this early closes the gap significantly between the Phillies and any other National League ball club, but the Phillies are still my odds on favorite to represent the NL in the World Series.

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