CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Chase Utley sounds convinced he will be back on the field for the Phillies in 2011.

Just don't ask him when.

He offered no timetable Monday at Bright House Field, where the Phillies played their final Grapefruit League game before boarding a flight to Philadelphia. The Phillies open their highly anticipated season Friday against the Houston Astros at Citizens Bank Park, but Utley will not be in the lineup because of chronic knee pain that has him sidelined indefinitely.

Utley could miss weeks. He could miss months.

Could he be back before the All-Star break?

"That would be a goal, yes," he said.

The Phillies seem to agree. General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said they have no plans to place Utley on the 60-day disabled list, which means there is a chance he could be back before June. But that is nothing more than speculation.

Utley has patellar tendinitis, chondromalacia and bone inflammation in his right knee. It has left him unable to run or field ground balls since mid-February. He said he has made some progress, and he offered proof. He started some light fielding practice the past few days.

"I'm optimistic at this point," he said. "I think being able to take ground balls fairly lightly, not a whole lot of intensity, just to be able to do that pain-free was important."

Light fielding practice is one thing. Running around the bases and taking a beating playing defense is completely different.

"We're going to kind of let my body dictate how it's going and make progressions from there," Utley said. "I think at this point, we want to take steps forward and not backward, and so far we're doing that. ... I think we've been pretty patient with it, and I think we're going to continue to be. I think that's the smart thing to do, and we're going to stay on that track."

Fans keep asking one question: Why doesn't Utley just have surgery? He might miss a couple months, but the situation would be behind him.

Of course, it's not that simple. In fact, surgery is risky. Amaro said a couple weeks ago surgery actually could make Utley's condition worse.

Utley said a few doctors have told him the same thing.

"You can talk to 10 different doctors and they'll probably give you 10 different answers," he said. "There are a few different types of surgeries that guys would probably recommend. None of them I would feel that comfortable with at this point. I think we can alleviate this without the surgery, but time will tell. Hey, listen, if surgery was the answer and I could be back on the field in six weeks guaranteed, it would be a no-brainer. But I don't think that's the case. I think it's a little unpredictable at this point. I want to take as many steps as I can to avoid that surgery and see what happens."

Utley said his new rehab program includes a stretching program and a "massage-type" program.

"A little bit more intense than just a standard massage, and I think it's loosening everything up, which allows my knee to work a little more efficiently," he said.

But is there a fear the pain will return once he returns to daily game action?

"That crossed my mind," Utley said. "That's why we're trying to take this process slowly to read how I'm responding. You might try something one day and see how you respond the next day. If it's OK and everything feels OK, you can make progressions off that. As long as you're moving in the right direction, I think we'll be OK."

Time will tell.

"It's not something that's going to change overnight," Utley said. "It's going to take a lot of work on my end, a lot of work on the trainer's end to make this go away. So definitely it's frustrating, but I'm trying to stay positive about it."