So the Phillies are without Chase Utley indefinitely, which means that at least one other team expected to finish at the top of its division will be without a star at the start of the season. Like the Cardinals they find themselves without an immediately apparent replacement—Wilson Valdez, a 33-year-old utility infielder whose fielding numbers make him either a great fit (Baseball-Reference) or an emergency fix (FanGraphs), is the official internal option at the moment.
It's terrifying how difficult it can get to field a replacement who's even reliably replacement level, and how quickly the timeline can slide on a player's indefinite recovery time. I'm reminded of Troy Glaus in 2009, who was supposed to be back by April, then May, and then just by the end of the season, sometime. In the interim we got David Freese, who'd injured himself in a single-car accident; Brian Barton, a reasonable depth pickup who cratered on offense; Joe Thurston, a reasonable depth pickup who proved unable to run the bases and cratered on offense; Khalil Greene, a nice bounceback candidate whose severe anxiety problems came to light that year; and Mark DeRosa, whose wrist fell apart for good almost immediately after he was acquired.
Those are the kind of thoughts that I don't like to harbor during Spring Training; it's fun, in a not-quite-conciliatory sense, to line up all the possible Adam Wainwright replacements in a row and see that each of them has a shot to be average. Kyle McClellan could prove little-benefited by his relief role; Lance Lynn could have a hot month in AAA and prove the new fastball is right for him; Bryan Augenstein or P.J. Walters could show that what works in the minors might finally work in the Majors. Or Kyle McClellan could injure himself in a single-car accident, Lance Lynn could go mad trying to learn the secrets of the six-seam fastball, and P.J. Walters could have a restraining order filed against him on behalf of Alfonso Soriano.
I don't know how this will work out for the Philies, although Utley is certainly a Wainwright-caliber loss if he misses most of the season, but Alvarez, the already-passable utility infielder, seems like a start. Why, he could be every bit as effective as Felipe Lopez.
I've been thinking about who would replace whom, if it came to that again, and I've come up with the following faux-bullet-points on the subject.
Yadier Molina: I get the sinking feeling that Gerald Laird, while only a little better than Jason LaRue, crosses some imagined threshold—a combination of age, recent starting experience, and defensive reputation—that means he'll get extensive playing time should Molina go down.
If Molina were lost for the year with LaRue or Gary Bennett behind the plate, a move would be made. Someone would be called up, or Mike Matheny would be forced out of retirement, etc. They just don't look like regular catchers. But Laird came after a (brief) search for a more capable backup, and he played 89 games last year, who cares how badly. That means nothing good for Bryan Anderson, who would have to enact an And Then There Were None scenario to start more than once a week this year.
Albert Pujols: Shut up!!!
Okay, Lance Berkman would probably move to first and Allen Craig and Jon Jay would patrol the outfield and Mark Hamilton would add adjectives to the personal section of his résumé. But shut up about it!
Skip Schumaker/Ryan Theriot: Daniel Descalso is so close to being Skip Schumaker that the team might just offer him hand-me-down jerseys if he's called up. I would personally enjoy a scenario in which Theriot was moved to second and Tyler Greene got the bulk of Schumaker's starts, with Descalso floating all over the place, but that sounds too much like what would have happened if the Cardinals hadn't given away Brendan Ryan for it to work.
Greene has yet to earn the Tony La Russa seal of approval, but I could see him squeezing past Nick Punto if La Russa's getting his fill of replacing Freese and Schumaker in the late innings with his new utility guy.
Matt Holliday/Colby Rasmus/Lance Berkman: Who knows how well they'll actually hit in 2011, but here in March I love having Allen Craig and Jon Jay around. In Baseball Mogul I play startlingly like La Russa, or (more optimistically) Earl Weaver—the fun is in having players with glaring weaknesses who can be swapped out for other players with glaring weaknesses. Craig and Jay can be platooned, they can move around the outfield (and the infield) during a game, and they can launch a thousand double switches if the occasion calls for it. With Lance Berkman in the outfield they're likely to get a lot of three-inning stints in right, if nothing else.
More importantly, there's reason to believe they'll be competent. As for La Russa's sudden decision that Tyler Greene is a center fielder—well, anything to get him on the roster and keep Skip Schumaker out of that sixth-outfielder role.