CHASE UTLEY limped badly as he walked into the interview room in the basement of Citizens Bank Park. Just kidding, everybody. LOL. Utley grinned as he continued to stride, normally now, to the podium.

Three weeks after hip surgery that once seemed to cast a shadow over the Phillies' championship defense long before it even began, the All-Star second baseman was in a playful mood that probably conveyed his feelings more accurately than his words.

The headline: He expects to be ready to play by the time the Phils open the season April 5 at home against the Atlanta Braves.

Some early reports suggested he could miss the first 2 months. The team had seemed prepared to do without him until May 1.

"Things are progressing well," said Utley, who had surgery Nov. 24. "I don't expect any setbacks. If there are no setbacks, I expect to be ready to go. I would like to [play in spring-training games], absolutely. We'll just have to see how it goes. The most important thing is to be healthy."

Head athletic trainer Scott Sheridan offered only a mild precaution.

"The things they warned us about was not to try to do too much early on," he said. "The strength stuff and the motion part starts around 6 weeks. If we can get to that point without a whole lot of trouble, I think we're in good shape. After the 6-week period, we'll have a lot better idea of how aggressive we can be. It's a fine line between being aggressive and being stupid, for lack of a better word.

"We're 3 weeks out, so it's still early. But we had a followup with his physician last week, which went very well. So certainly right now, I'm as optimistic as Chase is that, as long as things continue to progress, he'll be fine."

A week ago, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. was at the winter meetings in Las Vegas, reportedly pursuing a trade for Mark DeRosa or a free-agent signing of Nick Punto as a hedge against the possibility that Utley might miss significant early playing time.

Yesterday, Amaro said that while he always tries to add depth, it was no longer a pressing matter.

"We feel pretty comfortable we have it covered," he said, "[Jason] Donald emerging as a pretty darn good player and the fact that we have [Eric] Bruntlett on our club. We're always trying to add depth. If we can do that, it would be great. But we feel pretty comfortable with our coverage with Donald and Bruntlett."

After a torrid start, Utley's offensive numbers fell off sharply after the first 2 months, just about the time he began to feel discomfort. Through June 2, he batted .320 with 21 homers and 52 RBI in 225 at-bats. From then until the end of the season, he batted .275 with 12 homers and 52 RBI in 382 at-bats. But he said it wasn't actually pain that was the problem.

"It wasn't right. I knew something wasn't right for a while," he said. "I didn't know how bad it was until we actually had it examined. This game is a game of adjustments. If something's not right, you want to try to make an adjustment. It probably got me in some bad habits."


The signing of free-agent outfielder

Raul Ibanez

to a 3-year, $31.5 million contract is expected to be officially announced today after the former Seattle Mariner flies to Philadelphia and takes a physical . . .

Chase Utley

said he knows Ibanez is an excellent hitter, but acknowledged that he will miss

Pat Burrell

. "Pat was one of my good friends. So it's going to be a little different around the clubhouse," he said. "You can't replace the personality that he brings to the field every day. He really is a special individual. It's going to be tough a little bit at first. He's a guy who kind of took me under his wing when I first got to the big leagues and sort of showed me the ropes" . . .

Charlie Manuel

said that Ibanez is a "good, solid leftfielder" who runs well and that he wouldn't expect to remove him in the late innings for a defensive replacement or pinch-runner as he generally did with Burrell. "He can play the full nine innings," the manager said. *