For just the second time in the history of the baseball draft, the Phillies have the 15th overall pick. The last time was 20 years ago and it turned out to be arguably the best first-round selection in franchise history.
Remember Chase Utley.
The Phillies entered their draft room in 2000 with two players on their mind. One was Utley and the other was Rocco Baldelli, but not necessarily in that order.
Mike Arbuckle, then the Phillies’ scouting director, had watched Utley since his high school days in Southern California and saw him play many more times during his three seasons at UCLA.
But the Phillies had also fallen in love with Baldelli, an athletic 6-foot-4 center fielder from Bishop Hendricken High School in Rhode Island. Arbuckle dispatched his top scout and right-hand man Marti Wolever to see Baldelli shortly before the 2000 draft and the two men were in agreement that the kid had a chance to be special.
Something that seemed unfortunate at the time became serendipitous. Bill Lindsey, a top scout from Tampa Bay, showed up to see Baldelli play in one of his last regular-season high school games.
“Bill came in to see him the same game I did and Baldelli put on a show,” Arbuckle said. “I found out Tampa Bay actually adjourned its draft meetings and they came back and watched Baldelli in a playoff game.”
Tampa Bay’s decision was sealed. The Devil Rays, as they were known then, took Baldelli sixth overall, leaving the Phillies to sit and wait to see if Utley would fall to No. 15. Utley said he actually thought he had a chance to be drafted by the Rays because they were in contact with him quite a bit before the draft.
“We thought he had a chance to fall because most clubs won’t draft a second baseman if they have the option of a shortstop or a center fielder or a pitcher,” Arbuckle said.
Only two of the eight players selected after Baldelli made it to the big leagues and neither Dave Krynzel, who batted .188 in 21 career games, nor Joe Borchard, who batted .205 in 301 games, made an impact.
Utley, on the other hand, became a six-time All-Star and his BaseballReference career WAR of 64.4 was the best of any player selected in that draft and also the best of any player ever taken 15th overall.
Baldelli, who is now the manager of the Minnesota Twins, was a good player, but injuries limited his career to just seven seasons.
The Phillies might have been even luckier that Utley had not signed after being selected by his hometown team in the second round of the 1997 draft. Arbuckle also liked Utley then, but not enough to take him in the second round, which is where the Phillies selected left-hander Randy Wolf that year.
“The first time I ever saw Chase was at Blair Field in Long Beach and it was Death Valley for hitters,” Arbuckle said. “As a high school kid, Chase was crushing balls to the wall. I really liked him in high school, but he was playing shortstop and I didn’t think he was going to play there, and I didn’t know for sure where he was going to play. We also weren’t sure about his signability, so we backed away.”
The Los Angeles Dodgers did not. They took him in the second round of the 1997 draft. Utley opted to go play at his hometown college instead, accepting his scholarship to UCLA.
“After I got to know Chase, it still to this day floors me that he didn’t sign with the Dodgers,” Arbuckle said. “Going that high in the draft and going to his hometown team and knowing that he is one of the all-time baseball rats, it surprises me that he didn’t sign because guys with his kind of mentality, you don’t see many of them pass up a chance to sign the first time it comes along. I never talked to him about the circumstances of why he didn’t sign, but we were certainly the beneficiary.”
The Dodgers had very serious negotiations with Utley’s father Dave, but the talks were put on hold while Chase went on his senior trip to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
“There was a difference of opinion where I’d be taken that year, but most teams had me going between the third and fifth rounds,” Utley said. "The Dodgers were telling me they might take me with their first or second pick, which was a lot different than what other teams were saying, and that obviously created some excitement for me. It was my hometown team, the team I grew up admiring and watching and going to games.
“My dad, who was a lawyer, felt he could handle the negotiations and he got to a number that seemed very fair for where I was drafted. That coincided with me going on my senior trip with a bunch of high school buddies. So my dad told the Dodgers that he’d reconvene the conversation when I got back. I went down to Cabo and I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed being outside with my buddies and I enjoyed that atmosphere and I decided during that week that I wasn’t ready to go to pro ball. I wanted to continue my education as well as play baseball at UCLA. I wanted to experience college life and when I got back I told my parents. Obviously the Dodgers were disappointed.”
In time, they’d become even more disappointed as Utley emerged as the best second baseman in baseball and helped the Phillies win consecutive National League championship series against the Dodgers in 2008 and 2009.
Three years of watching Utley at UCLA convinced Arbuckle and the Phillies that the kid was serious about baseball and improving.
“The thing I remember about him in college is that they put him at second base and he kept getting better every year defensively and, of course, he continued to swing the bat,” Arbuckle said.
Utley said the college experience was exactly what he needed.
“The program at UCLA under Gary Adams at the time was the perfect fit,” Utley said. “That college time not only on the baseball field but also in the classroom teaches you how to navigate on your own away from your parents is a priceless time in a player’s life.”
The Phillies’ love affair only grew as Utley climbed his way through the minor leagues and became known as “The Man" in Philadelphia.
“I remember our first year in the new spring-training park, Chase got off to a little bit of a slow start with the bat,” Arbuckle said. “I left my office to go over to the Carpenter Complex and I saw Chase in the indoor batting cage in just regular shorts, and he was by himself hitting off the machine. At that point, it was about an hour after the game, and most of the players were gone and I didn’t think much of it at the time.
“The next morning I saw the minor-league equipment manager and he tells me he went over to use the big dryers in the big-league clubhouse around 7 o’clock at night and Chase Utley was still in there hitting. That’s three hours post-game by then. I don’t know how long he hit, but it was at least three hours after the game. By himself. No coaches. Just him and the machine. He’d pick up the balls and reload the machine.”