Phillies' Chase Utley: An aging star in transition

Chase Utley signs an autograph for Angelina Militello during Fan Appreciation Night. Utley, 33, has been slowed in recent years by chronic knee problems.
Chase Utley signs an autograph for Angelina Militello during Fan Appreciation Night. Utley, 33, has been slowed in recent years by chronic knee problems. (YONG KIM / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 29, 2012

Baseball's postseason is going to begin in a week without the Phillies being a participant for the first time in six years.

Chase Utley, one of the pillars during the Phillies' five-year postseason run, will not be hanging on every pitch.

"Will I watch it? I might watch a few games," the five-time all-star second baseman said earlier this week as he sat in the home dugout at Citizens Bank Park. "I'm not going to set my clock to it. I'll definitely keep track of what's going on. I think it's disappointing the position we're in right now, but you can't change what has happened in the past."

The 33-year-old Utley will also refrain from spending much time reflecting upon what transpired in 2012, a season in ruins by the time he and teammate Ryan Howard returned from the disabled list.

"In my opinion, there is no point in looking back," he said. "What you can do is learn from the things that you've done to try to get better."

At some point, Utley may reflect on a baseball past that has mostly been filled with success. But now his focus is narrowed to the present and near future. As 2012 closes with a six-game road trip to Miami and Washington, Utley is getting ready for 2013, a season he wants to begin in early April rather than late May or late June and one that could see him move from second base to third base.

Chrondomalacia, a painful condition that has inflicted both of his knees, delayed the start of his last two seasons. But Utley and the Phillies say they have found a formula to prevent it from happening again in 2013.

"In my mind, I feel like I've reached a place where I can move forward and not backward," Utley said.

A big reason he feels that way is because of the results he has had on the field this season after altering his rehab program during an extended visit with Brett Fischer, a Phoenix-based physical therapist who is originally from Quakertown.

"I was a little bit stronger this year coming back," Utley said. "I'm not exactly sure why. The last couple of years I've had a better idea of what I need to do to get stronger. What I can and what I can't do in order to move in the right direction. All those things I think were reasons I came back a little bit stronger."

He had 11 home runs and 28 extra-base hit in 275 at-bats through Wednesday compared with 11 home runs and 38 extra-base hits in 398 at-bats all of last season.

"He's hit the ball harder than anybody on our club over the last several months," general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said. "He's not lofting the ball for home run power as he has in the past, and he may not be in the 30-home run power mode we've seen in the past. But I think next year he's going to be much closer to that than he has been the last couple of years."

Utley thought he had settled upon a successful offseason regimen last year, too.

"I felt like I was in a good place going into spring training, but clearly that wasn't the case once I ramped it up," he said. "Looking back at it now, yeah, of course, I would have changed things."

He changed things after he went to Phoenix and started working with Fischer, who works with a long list of star athletes.

"One thing I think worked out with him was that he stressed going through different movements without getting the pain threshold too high," Utley said. "Some people say if it hurts just a little bit to shut down. His idea was that as long as you can keep the pain, let's say to two out of 10, you can move in the right direction. Prior to that, during the offseason if it hurt just a little bit I'd shut it down and pick it up again the next week. I think going with his idea worked better."

Third base is an option

Utley came up with the idea of possibly moving to third base early last month, and the Phillies will probably take their first look at him there in a game during the team's season-ending six-game road trip.

"He actually came to me probably two weeks ahead of telling anybody else," first-base coach Sam Perlozzo said. "He asked me if I thought he could play there. To be honest, I didn't have a good answer for him. I said, 'I'm not sure.' He said, 'Do you think it's my arm?' I said, 'Actually I think you have plenty of arm.' We just have to find a way to use it and get you in the proper throwing position and your arm will be fine."

Two weeks passed without anything else being said between Utley and Perlozzo, who is also the Phillies' infield instructor. Utley, in the meantime, asked Amaro about a possible move.

"I thought it could be an option," Utley said. "Again, I don't know where it's going to go from here, but if it's an option that is going to make us better, I'm willing to put the time and effort into trying it."

At this point, the position change remains in the experimental stages. Utley, with the help of Perlozzo and the rest of the coaching staff, has spent time working at third base over the last month, but no one is positive he can or will do it.

"I think you're going to have to see him play for a little bit," Perlozzo said. "I don't think anybody can step right over there and you say he's going to be OK. I think you need to see Chase play some and you hope he gets a lot of ground balls and a lot of different plays. I think even if he looks good, it's still going to be two months into the season before he starts feeling like he has seen everything."

So far, the dry runs have gone well.

"He looks good," Perlozzo said. "His arm is strong enough. I'd say his real test is going to be maybe when he has to knock a ball down, pick it up and throw."

Amaro said he's not sure if the Utley move to third base will stick, but he does believe it could make the Phillies better.

"What it does is fortify us defensively," Amaro said. "No disrespect to Chase, but I think the knee injuries have affected his range, not too much, but some, and when you're talking about Freddy [Galvis] at second base, that's a Gold Glove-level guy. With him and Jimmy [Rollins] in the middle, it's an extraordinary combination."

Utley last played third base at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in 2002, when the team asked him to move because it anticipated the departure of a disgruntled Scott Rolen. Utley, who had skipped double-A Reading to play at Scranton, made 28 errors. Most of them were throwing and almost none of them came in the final month of the season.

"What I remember was that initially it was a little rough," said Utley, a native of Pasadena, Calif. "This is not an excuse, but obviously it was a new position for me. I made the switch from A-ball and it was the first time I had ever played in weather that was under 65 degrees. All those factors played into why I struggled initially. But I became more comfortable over there, and from what I remember the last few months of the season over there defensively were a lot better."

That experiment never became anything more because the Phillies signed free agent David Bell to play third base after the 2002 season.

Adding offense

With an infield of Howard, Galvis, Rollins, and Utley, the Phillies could turn their offseason focus to adding an outfielder through either free agency or a trade.

"Ultimately, the chances of adding offense to this club is probably through the outfield," Amaro said. "I don't know if that's center field, left or right, but there are a little bit better options at those positions than there are in the infield."

Another way to improve the club would be to have a healthy Utley from the start of spring training through the end of the season. That is the primary focus and has been the elusive goal the last two years.

"Whether I'm preparing to play second or third, I don't think it's going to change a whole lot," Utley said. "I have an idea what I need to do to get my body ready to play 162 games wherever that may be."


Contact Bob Brookover at bbrookover@phillynews.com or on Twitter @brookob.

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