Old age and its unfortunate consequences are inevitable, something the Phillies and Chase Utley have grown to understand more and more in recent seasons.
A lot has changed since Philadelphia's current core first made the playoffs back in 2007 and embarked upon a half decade of NL East dominance. Ryan Howard has turned from franchise cornerstone to financial liability, Jayson Werth has moved on to the division's newest juggernaut, and Roy Halladay came and went in what now feels like the blink of an eye.
What hasn't changed, however, is how essential Chase Utley is to the Phillies and their ultimate success. A perennial NL All-Star and MVP candidate just a few seasons ago, Utley's career, like many before him, has been slowed due to an ever-growing pile of injuries as he has aged into his thirties.
Healthy again (at least for now), Utley is reminding everyone just how great a player he is and also demonstrating that, at the ripe age of 35, he is still the NL's best second baseman (and the best second baseman in baseball not named Cano).
The signs were there last season when Utley played in his most games since 2009 and batted .284/.348/.475 with his best OPS+ (125) in four years. That success at the plate has carried into the first couple weeks of 2014 in which Utley is leading all major league hitters in average (.500), on-base percentage (.565), and even slugging (.875) through the season's first 11 games.
The 12-year veteran currently has more doubles (7) than strikeouts (4) this season and, by recording a hit in each of his first 11 contests, is causing Phillies fans to hearken back to the late 2000s when Utley hit 30 home runs per year and got on base at near a 40 percent clip. Utley has been so good, in fact, that he went 2-for-5 on Monday night and saw his OBP dip nearly 20 points.
Given all the time he has missed in recent seasons, it had become easy to forget just how great Utley was for those Phillies teams that won five straight division titles. During his prime, Utley combined elite defense and the type of power rarely seen in second baseman (his .566 slugging percentage in 2007 was over 60 percentage points higher than the next second baseman) to make five straight NL All-Star teams.
His performance last season and in the early going of 2014 has shown that Utley is still the NL's best second baseman when healthy, and with apologies to the likes of Brandon Phillips and Anthony Rendon, it's not particularly close.
Utley's play has been encouraging for a Phillies team that needs just about everything to break right for them to contend in the NL East. His power will never be quite what it once was, but Utley has shown that if he can stay on the field, he can still be a difference maker for Philadelphia.
His chronic knee problems will always be a concern, but considering his recent run of good health and blinding hot start, Utley is likely feeling better health-wise than he has since 2009 when he recorded 63 extra-base hits, including 31 home runs.
Even with Utley's best efforts, the Phillies are a long shot to recapture their prior dominance. And ultimately, whether it be this season or in the next few years, Utley's age will lead to further aches and pains and missed playing time.
For now, though, we can be thankful for Utley's current clean bill of health, which has been a pleasant reminder of not just how great a player he once was, but also how great he still is.