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Wednesday, March 23, 2011
Three Strikes: 2B a problem spot for Phillies


STRIKE ONE -- ALL IN THE CHASE DEPT.

The Phillies' signing of Luis Castillo tells us a lot more about Chase Utley than it does about Castillo. And for the Phillies, that's not good.

A week or so ago, Utley seemed headed for knee surgery. But that was before he started collecting opinions from surgeons. If he'd gotten assurance from the doctors that surgery would fix what ailed his right knee over the long haul, Utley clearly was leaning toward saying, "Let's do it."

Chase Utley
Utley

Luis Castillo
Castillo

What he heard instead, from all indications, was that there were no guarantees that surgery would make him healthy again. So for now, he and the Phillies have decided to try a series of new rehab exercises -- because if the rehab doesn't work, he can always have surgery down the road.

But suppose he tries surgery and that doesn't work?

Uh-oh. Then he's Carlos Beltran, battling for months and years just to get back on the field.

So for the foreseeable future, Utley is stuck fielding ground balls on a stool on a back field, while the Phillies parade Castillo out there to see if he can even remotely attempt to plug the gigantic hole Utley leaves behind. Uh, good luck on that.

When Castillo finally pulled into Clearwater a day late, he basically accused those conspiratorial Mets of being out to get him. And I've run into enough scouts who thought that he was still the Mets' best option to believe they never wanted him on their team in the first place. But it's also hard to find anybody out there who has seen Castillo who thinks he can be any more than a mediocre fill-in for Utley.

"Offensively, about all he can do is walk or hit a single," said an executive of one team. "And defensively, he's regressed. Going to his glove side, because of his hip, he just can't get to a lot of those balls. Either he doesn't have that first-step reaction anymore, or he can't bend down. I don't know which."

The Phillies have been talking about playing more small ball this spring, so maybe Castillo is a fit there. But small ball doesn't get much smaller than him.

"He doesn't drive the ball, ever," said a member of one NL coaching staff. "If you've got a guy on second and he hits a single, there's no chance the guy can score because the outfielders are playing right behind the infielders."

Hey, no kidding. Consider this stat:

Extra-base hits by Castillo over the last three seasons combined: 33.

Extra-base hits by Utley in 2009 AT THE ALL-STAR BREAK: 34.

STRIKE TWO -- SPRING RUMBLINGS

With a week and a half left before Opening Day, the trade chatter is picking up. …

• The Marlins appear to have concluded that rookie third baseman Matt Dominguez isn't ready, so they're actively exploring outside options. Among names that could fit if they don't make their current clubs: Pedro Feliz (Royals), Felipe Lopez (Rays) and Eric Chavez (Yankees). The just-released Garrett Atkins (Pirates) could be another possibility.

Ryan Doumit
Doumit

• The Pirates continue to shop Ryan Doumit. But clubs that have spoken to them report they've found next to no interest.

• A bunch of teams (Phillies, Marlins, Cubs, in particular) still appear to be watching the Michael Young developments closely. But none of those teams can take on Young's $16 million a year. And the Rangers have made it clear that if they're going to eat any significant chunk of that money, they still expect a massive return back.

"I like Michael Young," said an official of one team that checked in. "He's got great presence. And he can still hit good pitching. But for what they're asking, you'd think he was King Felix."

Nyjer Morgan
Morgan

• Scouts covering the Nationals report that there might not be a player in baseball more eminently available than Nyjer Morgan. "They're trying to give him away," said one scout. "I wouldn't be shocked if he got released at this point."

• Scouts watching the Yankees predict they'll add a veteran backup catcher in the next week, now that Jesus Montero's lackluster spring has torpedoed the idea that he could be that guy until Francisco Cervelli gets healthy. Those scouts have been reporting that Montero's defense has regressed all spring, almost from the moment that Cervelli got hurt. One called Montero "an entitlement guy, who takes a lot of things for granted." Two others say they felt Montero eased up on the accelerator pedal the moment he thought he had made the team. It's clear this guy has great tools, but one scout said, firmly: "He doesn't have a catcher's makeup for me."

• While all the focus on Philadelphia seems to be on second base, Charlie Manuel might be more concerned about right field, where Ben Francisco clearly hasn't done enough since Domonic Brown got hurt to convince Manuel he's an everyday player. Manuel seems increasingly intrigued by John Mayberry Jr.'s potential, likening Mayberry's progress to a "Jayson Werth-type deal." But the Phillies continue to look around for a veteran outfielder who can play some center field. One name to keep an eye on: Aaron Rowand, if the Giants are willing to digest virtually all of the $24 million he has coming over the next two years. But scouts following the Giants think there's almost no chance of that.

• Teams that have spoken with the Astros report they'd like to add a veteran catcher, but have just about zero money to spend. And an official of one club reports they have "nothing going" on that front.

STRIKE THREE -- SCOUT-TALK DEPT.

Some of America's finest scouting minds report on what they've seen this spring:

• On Juan Cruz (Rays): "That has a chance to work. His delivery is good. He's had a good fastball. He's had a good rotation on his slider. He could be a good piece for them."

Jonathan Papelbon
Papelbon

• On Jonathan Papelbon (Red Sox): "I'd be nervous about him if I were them. I don't think he has a good feel right now for what he has to do to be successful. He's trying to regain the velocity on his fastball, but what he's really got to do is develop a better secondary pitch. His fastball isn't anywhere near what it was. It's very hittable."

• On John Mayberry Jr. (Phillies): "He's made progress. He's better than I've seen him. His pitch recognition seems to be much better. Much better 'takes' at the plate. And that's always been a big thing with him."

• On Eric Chavez (Yankees): "Looks like he's going to make that club, but I'm not sure why. He just can't move anymore. He gives you all he's got, but his body is too broken down to allow him to give a whole lot."