So much depends
a right patella
Poetic beauty, the Imagists believed, was in simplicity. Shirking Victorian conventions, the Imagists favored precision, concision, and a focus on the "thing." William Carlos Williams's "The Red Wheelbarrow" stands as the shining exemplar of this important poetic movement.
With respect to Chase Utley's (and, perhaps, the Phillies') prospects for the 2012 season, it really is that simple. If healthy, he's really, really good. If he's not, he's...well, not bad, just not "really, really good."
Utley's 2011 season was by no means bad, but by his own freakish standards it left something to be desired. Despite missing much of the season's first two months to a knee injury which by his own admission he was rushed back from, Utley managed to post 3.9 fWAR -- good enough to make him the second most valuable second baseman in the National League. But most of that value was produced in the first half of his season. After his OPS reached its peak of .884 on July 29, he managed just a .226/.305/.337 line for the rest of the season. His overall line finished at .259/.344/.425. Utley is well known for his ability to play through the myriad bumps and bruises that accrue over the course of the season, but it was obvious that the injury was affecting his play.
More disconcerting than his batting line, though, is the fact that 2011 was the second season in a row that Utley missed significant time to injury. It seems pretty clear that Phillies fans must come to terms with the reality that the uber-elite MVP caliber Utley is gone (it pains me just to type those words) and we are now witnessing his decline years. Of course, we shouldn't fret too much, because declining Utley is still an elite player. His fielding remains top notch, and his intelligent approach on the basepaths is enough to compensate for the step or two he has lost. Although his walk rate slipped in 2011, he can still control the strikezone and get on base at an excellent clip. Finally, his power dipped in 2010 and remained at roughly the same level in 2011, but both seasons he was hampered by injuries. It's just that now -- provided he can remain somewhat healthy -- around 5 WAR seems like a more reasonable expectation than 8 WAR.
With a timely return by Ryan Howard and his Amazing Exploding Achilles questionable, it becomes even more imperative that we are blessed with a healthy Utley in 2012. A healthy Utley could easily pick up the slack left by Howard. Again, given recent history it's a fairly big "if," but even if a healthy Utley isn't an 8 WAR player anymore, we can safely say that he's a good bit better than the Utley we saw for much of the 2011 season.
While he may be expected to shoulder a slightly heavier burden in the early going, when Howard returns it is imperative that he be used in a sensible manner thereafter. This means saving Utley from himself. He will protest, but it is Charlie Manuel's duty as manager to take the long view and insist on getting his best position player at least semi-regular rest; something Manuel has failed to do in the past.
Bill James projects Utley to go .280/.375/.475 in 570 plate appearances in 2012. I'd say this is a perfectly reasonable estimate and I'd take it gladly. Complaining about that would be like complaining that your Ferrari is just a 2008 model. Like all cars, it will eventually stop running, but for now it is still faster than virtually every other car on the road.