Idea to move Utley from second is purely out of leftfield

Chase Utley tosses back a baseball after signing an autograph at Bright House Field in Clearwater.
Chase Utley tosses back a baseball after signing an autograph at Bright House Field in Clearwater.
Posted: March 08, 2011

TAMPA, Fla. - Three days after Chase Utley took a cortisone shot in his troublesome right knee, as the Phillies reenacted the 2009 World Series against the Yankees at George M. Steinbrenner Field, a lockdown on any further information about the All-Star second baseman's condition remained in effect.

Before the buses that would carry the participants across the Courtney Campbell Causeway departed from Bright House Field, Utley briefly appeared in the clubhouse wearing street clothes. General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. later sent word through the media relations department that there would be no updates yesterday.

Since Amaro had suggested originally that it would be known in a few days whether the injection would have the desired effect, it would surprise no one if the next bulletin is that Utley has left the building to seek a second opinion. At that point, surgery would seem to be the most likely outcome.

Even if it doesn't come to that, the fact is that the Phillies have to be having some concerns about his long-term care and maintenance. In fact, they apparently were having it even before his knee flared into a headline issue.

Senior adviser Dallas Green brought it up to Daily News beat writer Dave Murphy before the first official full-squad workout.

"Chase does a lot of diving. Diving for balls that, even if he caught them, he's going to have a hell of a time throwing the guy out," Green observed. "You look at it and you say, 'Chase, why'd you do that, because you're not going to throw the guy out anyway? All you do is take a chance on getting hurt, banged up' . . . It's kind of a small thing, but your body takes a hell of a beating."

Keeping Utley running at peak efficiency is important for a few reasons. He's one of their best players. He's 32 years old and has battled injuries the last few years. He's making $15 million for each of the next three seasons.

That, plus the fact that Raul Ibanez is in the final year of his contract, would seem to set the stage for a neatly packaged solution.

It's been speculated for years that Utley might have to change positions before his career was over. The thought was that he might end up at first base. That, of course, was before the Phillies tied up Ryan Howard through 2017 with a 5-year, $125 million extension.

But what about moving Utley to leftfield next season? After all, playing there isn't much more taxing than lying in a hammock with a rum drink in one hand and a fan in the other, right?

As the late, great Harry Kalas would have said: "Nice guess. Incorrect, however."

For one thing, there's no indication that this is even on the organizational radar. For another, Phillies third-base coach Juan Samuel says that in many ways the outfield is just as physically taxing as playing the infield.

Samuel has firsthand insight. In 1987, he was an All-Star second baseman for the second time in 4 years. The next season, the Phillies experimented by having him playing a handful of games in the outfield. By 1989, he was a full-time centerfielder.

His knees were sound when he made the transition, but that didn't mean the switch didn't take a toll.

"I started having hamstring problems when I moved out there," he said. "The movements are different in the outfield. I had to run with longer strides than in the infield, where you take quick, little steps. I don't know if it really takes pressure off your knees, because there's a lot of running out there. You have to cover a lot [of ground]."

Another example: Pat Burrell was a third baseman at the University of Miami and was moved to left after he was drafted. When he was shown the artist's rendering for Citizens Bank Park, his first question was which would be the home dugout . . . and was disappointed to be told it would be on the first-base side because it meant just that many more steps between innings.

That wasn't the only adjustment Samuel had to make, either. In 1987, his last year as a full-time second baseman, he batted .272 with 28 homers and 100 RBI. The next year, when the Phillies started converting him, he hit a career-low .243 with 12 homers and 67 RBI. And by the season after that, when he played in the outfield every day, he was traded in June. His combined numbers with the Phillies and Mets: .235-11-48.

"I thought my offense struggled because my concern was moving to a new position. I wanted to play good defense," he said.

At least in center he could watch the catcher move and react accordingly. "I found it different when I was playing the corners, especially in leftfield, because you no longer see the catcher move that much," he said.

The only reason to consider moving Utley would be to reduce the wear and tear on his body. Which is a good reason to believe it isn't going to happen.

Send e-mail to hagenp@phillynews.com

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