Utley upbeat about Phillies' chances in 2014
Second baseman, who's repeating offseason workout program, cites health as key
PHILADELPHIA -- Prior to signing an extension last summer with the only big league club he's ever played for, Phillies second baseman Chase Utley wanted to know what the organization planned to do to return to its winning ways.
Though the Phillies have remained mostly quiet this offseason, Utley on Monday said he's confident that he made the right decision to remain in Philadelphia. With pitchers and catchers set to report one month from Monday, Utley said he's excited to enter Spring Training with a healthy roster in Ryne Sandberg's first full season at the helm.
"I'm excited to get everyone healthy and back on the field. Last year was not as much fun, losing a manager you've played for [for] so long and seeing guys go down with injuries, as it had been in the past," Utley said. "When you look back on it, you just realize that, overall, it was not the best of times, but there's something to look forward to next year."
To this point, the Phils' main offseason moves have consisted of signing outfielder Marlon Byrd to a two-year, $16 million contract and right-hander Roberto Hernandez to a one-year deal. The club may still look to add another bat to its bench and some pitching depth in the wake of Roy Halladay's retirement, but overall Utley is happy with the club as is.
After all, the key in Utley's mind to bouncing back from the team's first losing season since 2002 is to start the season with a healthy lineup, especially when it comes to first baseman Ryan Howard. Left leg injuries have limited Howard to just 151 combined games over the past two seasons, but the 34-year-old lifelong Phillie said recently that those injuries are behind him.
"We've missed him for really the past couple years. Just him in the middle of our lineup creates a lot of different things for the opposing team," Utley said. "His power is scary, as we all know, but he doesn't need to hit 60 homers. He has a knack for driving in runs. When guys are on base, he seems to put a good at-bat together and score that guy. Having him get 600 at-bats will be fun to watch again."
The numbers seem to support Utley's mindset. Over the past two seasons, the Phillies went 77-63 (.550) with Howard in the starting lineup compared to just 77-107 (.418) without their slugger.
It's not just Howard, either. The Phils are hoping to have a rejuvenated Jimmy Rollins up the middle alongside Utley, as well as a healthy Ben Revere patrolling the outfield with Byrd and Domonic Brown, who is coming off a breakout season that included his first All-Star appearance.
"Just having everyone back, just healthy, makes us automatically a better team," Utley said. "But we have to continue to try to improve. We have to continue to do what we need to do to stay healthy and, if we do that, I like our chances. We have to want it and I think a lot of guys in this clubhouse do."
As is typically his nature, Utley has spent the entire offseason leading more by example than through his words. For the second straight year, the 11-year veteran has been taking part in an intense offseason workout program at the University of San Francisco, located near his Northern California home.
Utley, who started the program in October immediately following Philadelphia's disappointing season, currently heads to the field three times a week to take ground balls and work on his hitting, but he plans to ramp it up to four times per week starting next week. It's identical to the program he followed last offseason, one that he credits for his bounce-back season this past year.
"Knowing that what I did last offseason worked, mentally that has helped a lot. I've basically done the same exact thing," Utley said. "I didn't take any time off -- which wasn't a whole lot of fun but it is what it is -- and just got right back into baseball, right back into weight training. In that aspect, I'm happy with how things are going."
As far as addressing specific areas, Utley said improving on last year's 73-89 record will take a complete team effort, both offensively and defensively.
"Overall, I think as a team we just lost," Utley said. "It wasn't just our hitting, it wasn't just our pitching, it wasn't just our defense. Overall, we just didn't get it done. We need to improve in all aspects."
Despite the departure of Halladay and a lack of big splashes in free agency, Utley reiterated his belief that a healthy Phillies lineup could return to contention in 2014. As for any off-field concerns regarding the chemistry between the team's veterans and the younger players, Utley said there is a simple fix to any issue.
"Winning cures a lot of different things. And losing can really get tiresome, so it's not a good environment when you lose," Utley said. "Now having a good clubhouse, does that create winning? Or does winning create a good clubhouse? That's a question we could all debate all the time.
"But I think if we all have the same determination to win, the clubhouse will be good. And the winning will come."
Paul Casella is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.