Utley, Phillies optimistic despite spring results
Players believe healthy roster should lead to first winning season since 2011
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Chase Utley asked plenty of questions before he signed a two-year, $27 million contract extension last summer.
He wanted to hear the Phillies' plan.
"I wanted to know where we're at," Utley said. "[General manager Ruben Amaro Jr.] laid it out for me. I wasn't uncomfortable."
The Phillies finished last season with 89 losses, their first losing season since 2002 and their most losses since they lost 97 in '00. They acquired A.J. Burnett, Marlon Byrd, Roberto Hernandez, Brad Lincoln and Wil Nieves in the offseason in an attempt to reverse that trend, which should give them a franchise-record payroll on Opening Day.
They have maintained they can win if everybody is healthy.
But this is not the spring the Phillies wanted. They entered Sunday's Grapefruit League game against the Twins at Bright House Field with a 6-15-3 record, which is the worst mark in baseball. They have a .646 OPS, which also ranks last, and a 4.78 ERA, which ranks 21st.
"I try to look back at other springs," Utley said before Sunday's game. "We've had some OK springs. We've had some bad springs. I'm not sure if they've really translated to the season.
"The main thing is getting your work in. Pitchers are building their pitch count, which is important. Guys are starting to get continued at-bats, which helps them become more comfortable. Obviously, you want to go into the season feeling as good as possible, but there is less emphasis on results and more emphasis focusing on whatever you're trying to improve upon that day."
The Phillies finished Spring Training 2008 with a 12-18 record before winning the World Series. They finished Spring Training '09 with a 13-19 mark before winning a second consecutive National League pennant.
Of course, the difference between then and now is those 2008-09 teams followed winning seasons and All-Star and MVP-caliber performances from players like Utley, Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins. They had recent track records of success. These Phillies have not finished with a winning record since '11, and their offense scored the fourth-fewest runs in baseball last season, while their pitching staff had the fourth-highest ERA.
Utley, who hit .284 with 18 home runs, 69 RBIs and an .823 OPS last season, entered Sunday hitting .190 (8-for-42) with one double, three RBIs and a .442 OPS. He slapped his only extra-base hit down the third-base line last week.
From 2006-13, Utley never had a Spring Training with lower than a .711 OPS.
He simply hasn't looked like himself lately, not driving the ball like he has in the past.
"For younger guys, I think results make you feel better," Utley said. "But as you go, you realize they're not quite as important this time of year. Physically, I feel good. Early in the spring, I felt pretty decent at the plate. There were some times in the middle when I felt a little uncomfortable and a little out of sorts. The last four or five days, I've started to feel a little more comfortable at the dish. For a guy that has done this for a few years, your game plan for Spring Training is different than it would be during the regular season.
"Yeah, I'm still trying to get better, trying to improve, trying to get a little better timing. These are all things you try to hone in [on] before the games that matter start."
The hope is Utley, Howard and Rollins, who were hitting a combined .203 this spring entering Sunday, come close to their career averages beginning March 31, when they open the season in Texas.
"Guys have been working hard," Utley said. "It's a little bit different feel than it was under Charlie [Manuel]. But overall, there is a positive outlook. I know we haven't won as many games as we probably would like to win, but we're working."
Phillies president David Montgomery said in February he is more excited to start this season than others in recent memory, essentially because he wants to see how good this team can be following two disappointing and injury-riddled campaigns. Utley said he feels similarly.
"Absolutely," Utley said.
But can this team truly be a postseason contender? An 83-win season won't cut it.
"I think people get too far ahead of themselves," Utley said. "We're trying to become a good, solid baseball team. Let's play out the season. I think the more we play, the better we're going to get.
"We'll see where it goes. I think we have guys who can help make us a championship-caliber club. But to try to make the playoffs the first day of the season is kind of ridiculous. I think we should all just focus on trying to improve."
Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.