Good signs from Phillies' Chase Utley

Posted: April 01, 2013

THE BALL came toward his head and baserunner Chase Utley did the natural thing. He ducked.

After avoiding contact with Domonic Brown's heat-seeking missile of a base hit, Utley regained his footing and took off from first to second base. He didn't stop until he slid safely into third base.

Utley then bounced back on his feet and prepared for the next step.

It was March and he was playing baseball, so any next step he took was going to be a heck of a lot farther than any he made in the last two springs.

"I like where he's at," manager Charlie Manuel said as Utley was on the verge of beginning and ending the Grapefruit League season strong and healthy.

Utley hasn't played more than 115 games in a season since 2009. Due to two chronically pain-ridden knees, Utley didn't take the field in 2011 until May 23, nor in 2012 until June 27.

Utley turned 34 in December, but his career appeared in jeopardy just 12 month ago, when his second straight spring training was lost because of injury.

Flash forward a year later and Utley appears to have figured out a way to stay on the field, which would bode well for the Phillies' chances to rebound from a lost season.

Utley played regularly during the exhibition season in Clearwater and didn't suffer any setbacks or have to spend any time fielding ground balls while seated on a stool.

"Every day I feel good," Utley said, "which is a positive sign."

Utley's injury-riddled last two seasons have tempered expectations for his 2013 season.

Even if he starts his first Opening Day in 3 years, can he stay on the field for the duration of the season? Can he still be a middle-of-the-order hitter or have his knees sapped him of his extra-base power?

The answers to those questions won't be known until the season plays out. They'll also likely hold the key to his future, too.

Utley's 7-year, $85 million contract expires at season's end, setting him up to become a free agent for the first time in his career.

The Phils undoubtedly would like to retain his services, just as they have with Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Cole Hamels. Utley is an unquestioned leader and influential force in the clubhouse.

But he'll have to prove he can still produce, especially with the likes of Freddy Galvis and infield prospect Cesar Hernandez eventually pushing for playing time in a crowded infield.

Utley hit .256 in 83 games last year; it's the lowest he has hit in any season since becoming an everyday player.

But he also had a respectable .365 OBP and was strong enough to start in 73 of the 75 games the Phillies played after the All-Star break.

"That was a good sign," Manuel said. "I think Utley has another 3 or 4 solid, big years. Just because of who he is, how he studies the game and because he wants to. I think he's going to be productive and I think he's going to be productive this year."

While Howard was regaining his power stroke this spring, Utley's bat was slow to wake up. But he hit a combined .221 in 36 Grapefruit League games in 2008 and 2009, so spring stats shouldn't be overanalyzed, either.

If you do like spring stats, there's this: Utley hit three home runs in a two-game span in the final weekend of games in Florida. The increased production at the end of the spring schedule came with increased playing time.

For Utley, productivity should continue to be in direct correlation with durability. Utley has a good chance of being productive if he's healthy and playing regularly.

If Utley is productive, it won't only help the Phillies make a run in the National League East, but it could increase Utley's chances of sticking around in Philadelphia beyond 2013, too.

"The way baseball is nowadays, that I don't know," Manuel said of Utley's future. "There's more of a chance of him playing here than leaving - I'd say that."

" @ryanlawrence21

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