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Can we rely on Utley, Hamilton and Cruz?

5/23/2011

The Texas Rangers and Philadelphia Phillies might have set offensive baseball back about 30 years in Philly this past weekend, combining for nine runs between them in three games. Yet there is good news: Both teams welcome back arguably their best offensive players Monday. The Rangers are scheduled to activate outfielders Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz from the disabled list, while the Phillies finally get to see second baseman Chase Utley make his season debut after he missed 46 games.

Not to take anything away from the terrific pitching this weekend, as Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Matt Harrison were borderline dominant and the closers did their job as well. But these pitchers also got to face the likes of Endy Chavez, Craig Gentry and Wilson Valdez. Hamilton, Cruz and Utley are obvious upgrades. Concerned about run support for your Rangers and Phillies pitchers? Well, it's about to get better. That's especially notable for the Phillies, who haven't scored more than three runs in a game in 10 contests yet have the best record in the National League.

I'm more optimistic about Hamilton and Cruz playing up to the same lofty standards we have enjoyed in the past than with Utley, who is dealing with a degenerative knee condition. Hamilton broke his right shoulder blade on an ill-advised headfirst slide at home plate April 12. His rehabilitation has gone so well that he's returning quicker than expected, and the defending AL MVP even homered for Triple-A Round Rock on Saturday. He says he's ready, and I have no concerns about him being able to hit. His durability is another matter, but you knew that when you drafted him in the second round. Cruz also homered in the minors Saturday. He also has seen his share of trips to the disabled list, but he has proclaimed his strained right quad muscle ready for action. I have little doubt Hamilton and Cruz will hit, run and produce big numbers, and fantasy owners shouldn't hesitate to activate them this week. They were top-10 outfielders on draft day, and they remain so.

Chavez, Gentry and Chris Davis are the Rangers likely to lose playing time, though none of them were fantasy fixtures anyway. The team says Hamilton will man the designated hitter spot for a few days, but after that he and Cruz will play regularly in the outfield, probably playing alongside useful but avoidable (in mixed leagues) David Murphy, while Mitch Moreland moves back to first base, with the occasional start in the outfield. Center fielder Julio Borbon (hamstring) is eligible to return from the DL next week, but I still like Murphy more in deeper leagues.

With Utley, there naturally should be more trepidation. Phillies fans have eagerly awaited his return, which is perhaps sooner than expected, but there's a difference here because he's replacing the likes of Valdez, Michael Martinez and Pete Orr. Presumably fantasy owners, even in deep leagues or NL-only formats, haven't been as strapped (as the Phils) for options. Even in his current form, and nobody really knows how close to 100 percent Utley is, I'd call him a top-10 second baseman. In our mid-May staff rankings, I placed Utley right at No. 100, behind nine second basemen. But I ranked him that low only because I wasn't convinced he'd return so quickly (or remain healthy for four months, for that matter). As of right now, I'd call him No. 8, ahead of Howard Kendrick and Martin Prado. For the record, the group ranking for Utley was No. 130. Utley was 63rd in ESPN average live drafts.

I watched Cleveland Indians outfielder Grady Sizemore for the three weeks he was active recently -- he's back on the DL -- and what I saw was a left-handed power hitter with a bit less mobility than normal swinging for the fences, and he also seemed less aggressive. It's only natural that Utley, dealing with patellar tendinitis, bone inflammation and chondromalacia, would be tentative, not willing/able to steal bases like his former self, etc. One would think he'll bring much-needed plate discipline to the lineup -- he generally does, but so does Sizemore, and he didn't -- and I'd expect Phillies manager Charlie Manuel to occasionally rest Utley. Still, four or five games per week of Utley likely will be more productive than whomever the Utley fantasy owner has had filling in.

Look for Utley to hit in the No. 3 spot for the Phillies, after Jimmy Rollins and Placido Polanco and ahead of Ryan Howard and Raul Ibanez. It might take Utley a few weeks to regain his stroke against big league pitching -- he never did have spring training -- so keep early expectations in check. Also, those in daily leagues might want to keep a middle infielder on call, because Utley will have his share of days off. But let's not forget this is a player who averaged 29 home runs, 101 RBIs, 111 runs, 15 stolen bases and a .301 batting average from 2005-09, and last season, while truncated to 115 games, he was showing his best walk rate of his career; was on pace for 25 home runs and 20 stolen bases; and hit .275. Don't expect the steals, but Utley could hit 15-20 home runs, knock in 60 and score a lot of runs in the final four-plus months. Or his knee could really hold him back. I admit, I'd be leery about trading for him, because it would probably take a top player to do so. We can't presume Utley is a top-25 player anymore. He is and should be owned in all leagues, but as Utley likely will act in his approach, proceed with caution. For him and the Phillies, it's about October. With you, not so much.