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Without Utley, the Phillies are hurting in more ways than one

Their starting pitching quartet of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels is indeed the best since the early '90s Braves rotations and maybe the early '70s Orioles or even the 1954 Indians. But that fearsome foursome of the Phillies is threatening to be undermined by the baffling knee injury of superstar Chase Utley, who is not only their No. 3 hitter but also the heart of perhaps baseball's toughest team.

"It's not good,'' said Jimmy Rollins of his longtime double play partner's injury. "We haven't seen him at all, and he's highly unlikely to make the start of the season.''

What isn't being said yet is that it may go well beyond that. Utley was diagnosed with patellar tendinitis, and while no structural damage was found in the MRI, the pain persists. The Phillies recently announced he also has chrondomalacia and bone inflammation in the knee but still seem a bit perplexed that it hasn't calmed down as it has in the past. New medical opinions are being sought. A cortisone shot a week ago is said to have produced only "minimal improvement.'' Utley has the deserved rep of John Wayne in cleats, so everyone around here is worried.

"If we're not playing, it's pretty serious,'' Rollins said. "It's not a little knickknack thing.'' Rollins also conceded Utley is tougher than him. "He doesn't mind getting hit (by a pitch). I do.''

Lest anyone worry that Rollins is hurting the Phillies' trade leverage, they shouldn't; it's become obvious Utley won't make Opening Day. Rollins is literally correct about Utley not being seen (I didn't see him all day Thursday), but Phillies officials say he can hit and field but not run and confirm that Rollins' assessment regarding the opener is correct.

The overwhelming likelihood is that the Phillies will go with veteran journeyman Wilson Valdez at second in Utley's stead. Valdez is a superior fielder who saved the Phillies' bacon last season when Rollins was on the shelf. Rollins was limited to 88 games last year and Utley, who had hip and knee issues, to 115. The Phillies like Valdez very much (they also like the fact he's been a lot better for them than he was for the Mets), but the reality is that a league-high $170-million payroll, which was stretched considerably to fit the returning superstar Lee, may be at or close to the limit. They are believed to be "tapped out'' by one competing team, no surprise since Philly's payroll dwarfs most of its NL brethren already.

Ideally, the Rangers' Michael Young would be the perfect fit or the Phillies since they need a righthanded batter with Jayson Werth gone to the Nationals for $126 million and Utley their one proven, in-his-prime No. 3 hitter. But one source said there is "nothing brewing'' on that front, no surprise considering the $48 million remaining on Young's contract. And though the Phillies could try to offset that by sending starting pitcher Joe Blanton, the fifth Beatle, to Texas for Young, Blanton's overpriced $8-million salary is still only half what Young is owed. The Phillies also have journeyman Josh Barfield in camp and could consider David Eckstein, who has Utley's tough, team-first mindset but obviously nowhere near the ability. Veteran second baseman Luis Castillo is also available after being released by the Mets on Friday.

As for the No. 3 hitter in Utley's absence, team officials suggest Raul Ibañez, who is finally aging at 38 but should replace Utley in that spot based on his strong history there; Ibañez has a .295 lifetime average as a No. 3 hitter.

The No. 5 spot was already worrisome, with no obvious replacement for Werth. Shane Victorino, Placido Polanco and Ben Francisco (who's expected to see more playing time with top prospect Domonic Brown out with a broken hamate bone) are the most logical replacements there. But none of them is a true No. 5 hitter, and one competing player opined that with all the Phillies' injury trouble, "Nobody is going to give (cleanup man) Ryan Howard anything to hit.''

When this was relayed to Howard, he responded, "Teams don't pitch to me already. The only thing you can do is worry about that when you get to that. Teams already pitch me careful regardless of who is in front of me or behind me. I expect the same thing.''

Howard's 31 home runs and 108 RBIs were unusually low last year (he averaged 44 homers and 144 RBIs the previous four years) when the players around him struggled, though he still managed to hit .276 despite 157 strikeouts and only 59 walks. But he could be at a major disadvantage this year in a depleted lineup. In any case, Howard swore he will try not to expand the strike zone. "If I get out of my realm,'' he said, "that's not going to help me or [the team].''

What's not helping this team now are all the injuries, not just to Utley, although that's the most obvious and debilitating one. The ultra-talented Brown, only 23, looked overmatched at times, and a hand injury can be very troublesome for a hitter. Meanwhile, Polanco is suffering from a hyperextended elbow, the same one that was surgically repaired right after last season, though the prognosis for him seems to be very positive.

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The Phillies wish the same could be said for Utley.

• Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski declined comment on whether there's been any discussion about extending his contract, which expires at year's end. But the great expectation is that Dombrowski, whose trades and drafts have been very good, will be back. Manager Jim Leyland's contract is also up.

• Victor Martinez seems to be a great fit for the Tigers, both in the clubhouse and lineup. Al Avila will catch at least four days a week, it is hoped, with V-Mart catching the rest.

• Ex-major league outfielder Raul Gonzalez has the difficult job of babysitting Miguel Cabrera, who is also regularly attending alcohol meetings (though Tigers people won't say how regularly). Cabrera appears to be in midseason hitting form, by the way.

• Phil Coke still looks like a work in progress as a rotation hopeful for the Tigers. He struggled with control in his last outing.

• While the Braves' pitching looks terrific, one scout worries about their defense. That scout also said rookie Freddie Freeman "doesn't look great'' at first base. Freeman's rep is that he is smooth with great hands but alltime slow (almost to the degree of Bengie Molina).

• All reports indicate Manny Ramirez is behaving himself in Rays camp. Sources indicate he wanted to play for either Toronto or Tampa (an odd pairing). He explained about the Rays, "It's close for my family. I live in Miami.''

• San Fuld is going to make the Rays as a reserve outfielder because he can play all three outfield positions. Young infielder Elliot Johnson has been very impressive for them this spring, teams officials say.

• Yankees manager Joe Girardi has used Brett Gardner two straight days as their leadoff hitter (Derek Jeter batted second in the first game and had the second off), but the likelihood remains that Jeter will at least start the year as the leadoff man.

• Rafael Soriano made the surprising request not to pitch against AL East teams, which limits Girardi since the Jays, Orioles and Rays are all nearby the Yankees' spring training location in Florida. Soriano, who has been mostly out of sight so far, annoyed some Rays people by not wanting to pitch in the eighth inning last year. Oddly, this year he will almost exclusively pitch in the eighth.

• One scout who saw the Rays' B.J. Upton predicted great improvement of his .237 season last year.

• Pedro Feliciano has an "upper arm'' issue and Boone Logan (back spasms) are hurting, depleting the Yankees lefty relief situation at the moment.

• Cardinals manager Tony La Russa continues to give no preferential treatment to stars regarding the long bus rides in Florida. "We alternate them,'' said La Russa, who added that allowing the stars to stay back in Jupiter would be "the worst message.'' So Albert Pujols was on the 138-mile trip to Lakeland Wednesday and will be going to Ft. Myers (also 138 miles) Sunday.