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June 30, 2015

Hernandez making case to overtake Utley as Phillies second baseman

There's a chance Chase Utley's spot at second base won't be waiting for him when he returns from his most-recent stint on the disabled list. After his decade-long reign as the Phillies everyday second baseman, that may come as a shock to some fans.

Even after considering all that Utley has done for the team during his time in Philadelphia, giving 25-year-old Cesar Hernandez a shot to finish out the season at second would be in the team's best longterm interest.

Utley, who has been plagued by an ankle injury since he first reported to Clearwater for spring training, has played his best baseball. There's no magic elixir* out there -- not a legal one, anyway -- that will turn the 36-year-old infielder back into a younger version of himself.

*You know, the kind that Barry Bonds never took despite hitting 73 homers at the age of 36.

As hard as it may be to admit, he's no longer a part of this team's future; by the time the Phillies contend again (2017 maybe?) he'll be closing in on 40 and will likely have already retired.

The fact that he's having the worst statistical year of his career -- his .179 batting average is 60 points lower than his career worst of .239, which came as a rookie -- has only served as a daily reminder of what a son of a bitch Father Time can be.

Despite that dramatic drop-off in performance, Utley entered this season as the starter at second. It wasn't until this trip to the DL that his job seemed in jeopardy, due in large part to the sudden emergence Hernandez as a viable option.

On Tuesday night, Hernandez reached base four times -- a single, a pair of errors* and a walk -- and scored a run in the Phillies' 4-3 loss to the Brewers. The fact that he is able to get on base even when he doesn't get a hit is one of the things that makes him so attractive as a player.

*The first time he reached on a error had just as much to do with Hernandez's speed as it did with the Brewers ineptitude. The second time allowed him to represent the winning run in the bottom of the ninth.

"[Hernandez's recent play] just goes to show you, when you're looking at players, and you see part-time players that are not doing as well as you'd like them to do, well, you can see now the benefit of playing on a daily basis, how a player can be a whole different player," interim manager Pete Mackanin said prior to the game. "Cesar has been fantastic, and this is the kind of thing we're all excited about, because we knew he had it in him.

"It's been a long process. He's been a young guy coming up and we kind of wrestled with the fact of even having him on the bench as a part-time player because we knew he could develop if he played. But unfortunately* we couldn't do that. Now that we can do it, we're pretty excited. I, for one, am thrilled about it. I think he's making a good statement for himself in the future."

*Unfortunately? You "couldn't" do it? Where was that pressure coming from? Amaro? Sandberg? Utley? It just seems weird that they didn't think that playing Hernandez every day was an option prior to Utley's injury.

And it's been quite statement. In his nine games since taking over for Utley, Hernandez, who started just 12 other games at second second base this season, has been nothing short of spectacular.

9 Games

He's been playing so well that Mackanin was noncommittal when asked about Utley's role upon the former all star's return from the DL.

"That's a good question," Mackanin said. "I would like to think that Cesar has proven that he deserves a chance to be the everyday second baseman. That remains to be seen."

But then the newly-minted manager hesitated, almost as if he realized what he was about to say -- Utley and his .532 OPS don't really have a place on this roster any more.

"I don't know. I don't want to get ahead of myself. Let's just wait to see when Chase is healthy and how he feels. We'll go from there."

If Mackanin has any desires of managing this team beyond this season, he only has one choice: play Hernandez. On the basis of on-field performance, is it even a question which player deserves the job?

Not to mention that team president-to-be Andy MacPhail will be watching closely. It's unlikely that he'd prefer to see a 36-year-old whose contract will vest for $15 million next season if he hits 500 plate appearances over a 25-year-old who has a legitimate shot at being an important piece of this team's future.

Mackanin must show he is not part of the Phillies' old way of thinking. Benching an under-performing Utley in favor a younger player would certainly be a start.

And since Mackanin won't be able help this team win any more games than his predecessor -- the roster just doesn't have enough talent -- moments like this will be most influential in MacPhail's decision on who can best steer this team through the treacherous rebuilding process ahead.

Whether or not the interim manager will do what's best for his future -- and, in this case, the future of the team -- remains to be seen. 

That will have to wait until at least next week when Utley is available to come off the disabled list.