Chase Utley is normally as quiet as the Phillies bats have been over the last two seasons. The player, who is arguably Philadelphia’s most popular athlete typically resides in his fortress of solitude prior to games. Utley will occasionally toss a cliche-ridden quote or two to the media after having a big game.
So Utley, of all players, met the press to discuss the Phillies 2014 season. The gritty and gifted second baseman is optimistic about his club’s chances.
“I wouldn’t have signed back here if I didn’t think we’d have that opportunity,” Utley said.
Utley passed on free agency and signed a two-year $27 million extension to stay with the Phillies. The deal can morph to five-years, if Utley can continue to post 500 plate appearances each year, as he did in 2013.
“I’m really excited to get everyone healthy and back on the field,” Utley said.
When Utley stares at the deck of cards the Phillies will deal, he sees a pair of aces (Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee) and a king (Ryan Howard), who was hobbled the last two seasons.
Utley mentioned Howard four times during his 17-minute state of the Phillies address.
“We’ve missed him for really the past couple years,” Utley said. “With him in the middle of our lineup, he creates a lot of different things for the opposing team. His power is scary. He has a knack for driving in runs.”
A healthy, productive Howard is essential for the Phillies to compete. During the last two disappointing seasons, the Phillies were a solid 77-63 with Howard and an atrocious 77-107 without ‘the big piece.’
“Having him back is huge for us,” Utley said. “We need him to be out there as much as possible, playing like he is capable of.”
The same can be said of Utley, who earned his extension last season by posting solid numbers and by impressing on the field with his solid defense and exceptional base-running skills.
Utley pointed to a rigorous conditioning program as the reason for his improbable comeback. Prior to the 2012 season Utley took grounders every other day at the University of San Francisco, which is close to his Northern California home.
Utley takes grounders three days a week. Next week he’ll amp up his program to four days of ground balls each week.
“I’m going to do whatever it takes,” Utley said. “I feel good about this team.”
Utley isn’t pulling a Jimmy Rollins and predicting a division title but he believes the Phillies will be in the mix. “I definitely think we can contend,” Utley said. “Having Ryan (Howard) is huge. Getting Ben Revere back, he was just starting to heat up last year when he got hurt, is big”
Utley is bullish on rookie third baseman Cody Asche. It’s not surprising since the hard-nosed Asche plays the same way as Utley. “You guys saw him,” Utley said. “I thought he handled himself really well. I hit .230 my first year. I was just glad to be up here. But he handled it differently.”
Utley doesn’t blame the lack of hitting, the horrendous bullpen or any one facet of the game for the Phillies 73-89 record.
“I think as a team we just lost,” Utley said. “Overall, we just didn’t get it done. We need to improve in all aspects of the game.”
That’s a tall order for Ryne Sandberg, who will manage his first full season in the big leagues.
“I think he can do the job,” Utley said. “I like what he did when he came in as manager. But it’s not just him. It’s up to all of us to come through this season.”