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Optimistic Utley says Phillies can be contenders in 2014

Chase Utley happens to be in the neighborhood, and offers his opinion that, if healthy, the Phillies can be in playoff hunt.

Phillies second baseman Chase Utley. (Steven M. Falk/Staff Photographer)
Phillies second baseman Chase Utley. (Steven M. Falk/Staff Photographer)Read more

FIVE YEARS and 2 1/2 months ago, Chase Utley declared the Phillies as World [Bleepin'] Champions.

The team was the darling of a championship-starved city and the blue-collar Utley was the rock star who made them swoon. It's safe to say the Phillies and their second baseman were at a very different time and place on a much quieter afternoon at Citizens Bank Park yesterday, a month to the day from when pitchers and catchers will report to Clearwater, Fla., for the official start of the 2014 season.

Utley isn't exactly the chattiest of players on the 40-man roster, and he's also not known for making overly optimistic predictions, either. Such tasks normally are taken up by his longtime doubleplay partner, shortstop Jimmy Rollins.

But since he was "just passing by," Utley decided to set up shop in the Phillies' clubhouse and address a number of topics concerning a team that's not exactly firing up the fan base this winter. Although the excitement level is barely registering a pulse among Phillies faithful, Utley played his part as uber-popular face of the franchise (and, pssst, ticket salesman) and expressed hope for the upcoming season.

"I definitely think we can contend," Utley said, "and I wouldn't have signed back here if I didn't think we had an opportunity."

Utley made a decision for the future of his career when he ignored the possible temptations of free agency and signed a 2-year, $27 million extension (which includes vesting options) in August. The Phillies also made a decision that day and in the days that led up to it.

Rather than sell off their top commodities in an effort to rebuild and get younger, the Phillies decided to keep their aging core intact, first in re-signing Utley, who turned 35 last month, and then re-signing free agent Carlos Ruiz, who turns 35 this month, earlier this offseason.

Instead of signing an impact, perennial All-Star, middle-of-the-order bat to complement Utley, Ruiz, Ryan Howard and Co., the Phillies added Marlon Byrd, who was out of organized baseball this time last year. Byrd, 36, becomes the oldest regular in a lineup filled with 35-and-overs and numerous, lengthy disabled-list stints, too.

But spring is for hope and rebirth, so perhaps people can take a cue from Utley and go into spring training with an open mind and a healthy heaping of happy pills.

"I really do [think the Phillies can contend]," Utley said. "Obviously, we had some key parts of our lineup banged up, and I guess that happens throughout the league, but when you lose your middle-of-the-lineup guys, you lose your-middle-of-the-field guys, they're an important part of your club.

"Having those guys back healthy makes us automatically a better team, but we have to continue to improve and continue to do what we have to do to stay healthy. If we do that, I like our chances."

Although it's January and just about every ballplayer will feel as Utley does, ready for a fresh start, it remains to be seen whether that mindset will continue in April, May and June, when the results begin to matter.

Last July, for instance, closer Jonathan Papelbon said, "I didn't come here for this" when it became apparent the team was en route to its first losing season since 2002. Although no one complained publicly, Papelbon's me-first comments were not well-received among the Phillies family.

More unhealthy chatter filtered out this offseason. Cole Hamels told a magazine writer doing a story about the charitable foundation he and his wife run that the unproductive offense was to blame in 2013.

Standing in front of a throng of reporters and TV cameras yesterday, Utley knew it would do no good to continue a war of words, for lack of a better term. It's just as simple as the fact that losing breeds unhappiness, Utley said.

And he will do his best to prevent a similar mindset permeating through the clubhouse in 2014 if similar results come in the early part of the season.

"Winning cures a lot, and losing can really get tiresome," Utley said. "It's not a good environment if you lose . . . If you have 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. I think if we all have the same determination to win, then the clubhouse will be good."

While paying customers would have liked to see bigger names and bigger salaries added to the lineup, Utley praised new (and old) teammate Marlon Byrd, calling him "strong" and "a gamer," a guy who "plays the game the right way, the way I like it to be played."

While paying customers are concerned as to whether Howard will ever be healthy and productive again, Utley said the former MVP was feeling good and called his power potential "scary."

Utley's words were all well and good yesterday afternoon. Every player and every team in baseball should be hopeful with a new year begun and last year's standings wiped from the slate.

Whether the words ring hollow won't be known until April or May anyway. Perhaps it's OK every now and again to listen to someone such as Utley and go along for the ride anyway, regardless of whether you're at best pessimistic and at worst somewhat uninterested in the trip.