Philadelphia's infield shift

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- They've played nearly 50 postseason games together, made history together, built a golden age for their franchise together. But now what?

They've made a case for themselves as the greatest first baseman, second baseman and shortstop in the history of the Philadelphia Phillies. But now what?

Now the first baseman, Ryan Howard, hasn't set foot on a baseball field in more than two weeks.

Now the second baseman, Chase Utley, has run his streak of spring training games missed over the past two years to 46 in a row.

Now the shortstop, Jimmy Rollins, finds himself five years removed from his MVP season, trying to prove he's still That Guy.

Two years ago this time, when the third baseman, Placido Polanco, showed up to join them, virtually no one debated that these men formed the best infield in the National League, maybe the best infield in baseball. But it's time to wonder again: Now what?

Asked if it's still allowable to call this group The Best Infield In The League, here in the strange spring of 2012, even Rollins has to think about it. You can practically watch the gears in his brain gyrate. Then he answers -- with a question of his own:

"Who's in our infield now?" he laughs.

Hey, excellent question. Not Howard. Still dealing with Achilles tendon surgery and an infection near his heel. Not Utley. Still easing his way into the spring because of degenerative knee and hip issues. Not even Polanco on most days this spring so far. Still being treated cautiously after sports-hernia surgery last fall.

So that leaves Rollins, a fellow who has spent 83 days on the disabled list himself over the past two seasons but now looks like Cal Ripken Jr. compared to his supporting cast. Asked if he misses his partners in crime, Rollins retorts: "Not yet. You don't miss anybody in spring training."

"But if we start the season that way?" he adds, ominously. "Woooooo-ooh."

If they start the season that way? Now there's a sentence that could inspire panic on the Broad Street Subway. But before people start pulling emergency cords all over town, they should know the manager and general manager both say that's not the plan.

The manager, Charlie Manuel, says Polanco will start playing regularly any day now. The general manager, Ruben Amaro Jr., says of Utley: "I fully expect Chase to be our second baseman Opening Day."

But in truth, Utley's actual schedule is still shrouded in secrecy. And you'd have a better shot at picking all 67 March Madness games than you'd have of guessing when Howard will be back.

So there are still serious questions hovering over an infield that has suddenly gone from star-studded to star-crossed faster than you can say: "Call Dr. Andrews." And given what these men have meant to this franchise -- and what they still mean -- it's not a stretch to say they hold the fate of the 2012 Phillies in their hands.

Not to mention in their knees, their hipbones, their hamstrings and, especially, their Achilles tendons.

"They've been the core of our team, haven't they?" Manuel says, without hesitation. "Well, they still are. We still depend on them."

Unlike most clubs, the Phillies teams that have won five straight NL East titles have been built largely around their infield, not their outfield. That's where this team has traditionally looked for much of its production -- and gotten it.

Howard leads all active players in home run ratio. Utley leads all active second basemen in career slugging and OPS. Among active shortstops, Rollins is second only to Derek Jeter in runs scored, runs created and Wins Above Replacement. And Polanco, though he's missed 70 games in his two years as a Phillie, did start an All-Star Game.

So they lead the league in credentials. But when the manager is asked if that means he still thinks they make up the best infield around, Manuel has no choice but to answer: "They've gotta get healthy and get on the field."

And that's a problem that didn't just start this spring. A week into Polanco's first season as a Phillie in 2010, the Phillies were 5-1 and rolling -- until Rollins popped his calf muscle running sprints before the home opener. Since then, this team has played 318 regular-season games -- and run all four starting infielders out there in only 59 of them.

Never once, in all that time, have they started all four for longer than seven regular-season games in a row. And last year, they couldn't get past five in a row.

But never has the health outlook seemed murkier than it has this spring, thanks to the haze of uncertainty that has wafted over Howard and Utley. Nobody has had a closer view than Rollins, after all these years of playing alongside both of them. And he's clearly worried about his two longtime compadres. Here's his take:

ON HOWARD: "I don't know what to think, honestly," Rollins says. "If you ask me, with this infection, I don't know if he's going to play this year, because after all the work that he's done, now he's got to hit the reset button."

Like most of us, Rollins didn't graduate from medical school during the offseason. But he's had enough leg issues of his own lately to believe he has a good feel for how Howard's issues will affect him over the months to come.

"I mean, the leg is naturally going to atrophy if it's in a boot all this time and you're not getting the full use out of it," Rollins says. "So he's built up strength, but it's not like he was 100 percent [before]. Now he needs to take a step back, and he's probably back down to the 25 to 40 percent range. …

"And it's a tough injury," Rollins goes on. "It's not like he's 150 pounds. He's a big man. And that's a very important part of his game, being able to be on his legs. He doesn't use his legs for speed like me. He uses his legs for power. So if he doesn't have any [strength in his] legs, all that power just goes away."

We should note that the Phillies disagree with this take and continue to put as happy a face on Howard's prognosis as possible. Amaro even says a return sometime in May is "still possible." But Dr. Rollins isn't so sure.

If you ask me, with this infection, I don't know if he's going to play this year, because after all the work that he's done, now he's got to hit the reset button.

-- Jimmy Rollins on Ryan Howard

"Oh, he's definitely out for two months. I can pretty much guarantee you that," Rollins says. "And probably nothing before the All-Star break, unless it's like Albert Pujols' fracture [which magically healed itself in two weeks last summer]."

Somewhere out there beyond the horizon, Rollins predicts, Howard will be OK. But he still thinks his buddy faces a longer haul than almost anyone has suggested.

"You can come back from this injury," Rollins says. "There's no doubt. But I don't think you come back at the rate and have the success and the strength in your leg and the confidence that it won't happen again.

"Over the long term, [he'll] … be fine," Rollins says. "But that's where 'long term' is meaning, like, a year and a half. That's when he'll do something and he'll say, 'You know what? That didn't bother me.' And that's when you know you're fine, and you can go out there every single day and not have to worry about it."

Can the Phillies survive if Howard isn't himself until 2013? Well, they can't replace those 35 to 40 bombs a year. So they'd have to find other ways to win. "Good thing," said one NL executive, "they can pitch."

ON UTLEY: For the second straight spring training, Rollins has gone through an entire camp without playing with his double-play partner of the past 7½ years. And while Manuel portrays Utley's absence this spring as a matter of just "saving bullets," Rollins is concerned about the reason for saving those bullets in the first place.

"It's really the same thing as last year," Rollins says. "[Utley's knee trouble] is just one of those things where the more you use it, the more it's going to nag you. And like last year, trying to plant and turn a double play is going to really give him problems. And going to his right and trying to throw back to first -- going to get that ball and not having any legs to throw, he's probably not going to try to make that play anymore.

"So I think his [injury] is more of a long-term thing. It's like the opposite of Ryan. Ryan's is more of a shorter-term type of injury. You heal it. It gets fixed. And after a while, you have the confidence you're not hurt. With something like Chase, you've got your degenerative hip and the knee that's on the same side, and they're all related.

"You've got [a muscle] that runs from the hip to the inside of the knee and it's putting all types of different pressures on it. So you shave the hipbone down, but the muscle length is still the same. And the muscles treat the body like it's … normal. Regardless of what the hipbone says, the muscle hasn't changed. So that's something that's not going to change."

Get all that? Well, the manager puts it a lot simpler, saying, succinctly, that "what Chase has doesn't go away." So Manuel promises to "monitor" his health and workload throughout the season. But the more you hear about Utley's condition, the longer he goes without playing this spring or even participating fully in drills, and the longer his team remains vague about when he'll be ready, the more it becomes clear:

Chase Utley may very well be tough enough and talented enough to be a reasonable facsimile of his old self this year and beyond. But one word you'll never be able to use to describe him again is "healthy."

"You know, you hate to see it," Rollins says. "Such a talented guy. Goes out there, plays hard. The type of guy you want on your team. And then he can't play. And you know it's killing him … because he's not the kind of guy who's going to let an injury be the reason he's not going to play. But an injury like this, there's nothing you can do about it, because injuries are going to tell you what you can and can't do."

At the moment, obviously, it's telling us more about what Utley can't do than what he can. And for the Phillies, that's not good.

What has been good so far is the health of Rollins, who has made his bosses happy by reporting "in tremendous shape," says Amaro. Rollins says he no longer goes through the day worrying about whether his calf will blow again at any second, the way he has in the past. And he's got his manager predicting: "I see Rollins having a big season."

Polanco, meanwhile, also looks dramatically healthier than the guy who, by the time last October rolled around, admits it even hurt "to talk, to cough, to laugh."

The other side of this story, though, is that for all four of these men, their 20s have come and departed. Utley and Rollins are both 33 now. Howard is 32. Polanco is 36. So it's hard for them not to ponder whether these injuries can still be filed under "Stuff Happens," or whether they're now living with signs of their own mortality.

"Everybody knows how mortal we are," Rollins says. "There's no doubt about it. Everybody wants to believe they're Superman. The reality is, you aren't. The longer you play this game, and according to how you play this game, something's just going to tweak every once in a while. It's just unfortunate when it all happens to a group of guys at the same time.

"It's wear and tear," Rollins says. "Injury is not according to age, but wear is. Fresh tires versus tires that have been on the road for 1,500 miles already. That's just the way it is."

And that's especially true in the case of this group. Over the five years from 2005 to 2009, Utley averaged 151 games a season and Rollins averaged 154. In Howard's first six full seasons, he's averaged also 154 a year.

"And not only have these guys played a lot of games," says Amaro, "but they've also played a lot of playoff games. We forget about that part of it. They're basically playing an extra month every year -- which is fantastic, and I don't want that to stop, but you also have to keep that under consideration."

So one of those considerations Amaro would like to see is for his favorite 30-something infielders to take a few more days off. But that isn't how any of them -- or the manager -- is wired. So we'll see if that actually happens.

Regardless, what the men who run this team are coming to grips with is that their infield is kind of a microcosm of their entire club -- a little older, significantly more dinged-up but still talented enough, they hope, to find a way. They'll throw a lot less razzle and a lot less dazzle at you than they used to. But they'll be happy to remind you they haven't forgotten how to win.

"We've got guys who are going to catch the ball, we've got hitters who are going to hit and we've got pitchers who are going to pitch," Rollins says. "So if you execute, who's going to beat you? Look at the [San Antonio] Spurs. They're older than we are. But man, they execute. … And that's us. We execute."

So all they want to be, Rollins says, is "the team that just does it. It might not look pretty. It might not look fantastic. But … that's how I want to be. We used to be that team that looked pretty. But now it's just A-B-C-D. No fireworks. No extra stuff. Just do it."

Oh, they still know how, all right. And they've done it plenty. But for these longtime faces of the Phillies, the standings won't care what they used to do or how they used to feel, because the time has arrived to get it done again. So they'd better get ready. The big question of 2012 is coming -- for all of them:

Now what?