Oh, it may not happen in the snap of a finger, having to go through the normal travails of a rookie thrust right smack into the middle of a wild card race, but he will. Whether he can treat Phillie fanatics with a wild card birth will be a trick in itself. Many other factors will obviously come into play. Will the starting rotation rediscover their former brilliance? Who closes now that Mesa has had his meltdown? How will Amaury Telemaco do as the new number five starter? Of these questions, only time will tell.
What we do know is Utley's pedigree, and it's a solid one. Many Phillie fans have heard of him, some may have even seen him play in his cameo appearance at the Vet in April. But for the greater portion of Vet vets, he is a greenhorn, a newcomer whom they only have heard about, but are curious to learn more off. So let's open the doors wide open and introduce Mr. Utley to his new fan base. This writer believes that unless all the scouts, players and coaches in the International League are just flat out wrong about him, he will be gracing the Phils lineup for quite some time.
Let us begin with his having been considered the hitting plum of the college ranks in the Spring of 2000. Oh, you could quibble and find fault with his fielding, but few ever found fault with his bat. On a campus (UCLA) that produced such great collegiate hitters as Troy Glaus, Eric Byrnes and the Phils very own Eric Valent, Utley was considered the greatest hitting Bruin of the bunch.
Selected by the Phils in the first round, he immediately began his career in Batavia where he batted a cool .307. No trace of rookie jitters for this young man. His next stop took him to the sunny coast of Clearwater, where despite the tough pitching parks and tougher pitching staffs, he held his own with a .257 average and 16 home runs. His play at 2nd base was improving and projections were that he would make Philly his home when the new ballpark opens in 2004.
However, rumblings in Philadelphia changed everything for Utley in the Spring of 2002. With star third sacker Scott Rolen preparing to become a free agent, the Phils sensed they needed a third baseman for the future. Utley was suddenly told to trade his second base glove for a third baseman's leather...and then learned he would be given his crash course at the Triple A level.... a two full jump move. Frankly, the results were mixed. While continuing to show the outstanding tools that make him a veritable line drive machine, his defense was less than stellar. Nevertheless, he showed enough skill to be voted the Phils 2002 Minor League Player of the Year. His power numbers, 39 doubles and 17 home runs, showed his power, and despite the difficult switch in positions, he proved a worthy recipient of the POY award.
The life of a minor leaguer has never been fully chronicled and if it ever is, it will make for an interesting read. The bus rides, the meal money, the late overnighters in small towns, the homesickness that occurs occasionally, all play major roles in a minor leaguers life. Along with these potential distractions come one more...a minor leaguer must be ready for anything. Utley was no different.
In the winter of 2002 the Phils signed free agent third baseman David Bell and had no need for Utley at third. In fact, they moved Placido Polanco, recently acquired for Rolen in late July, back to his natural second base. Utley was told to get his second base glove out of the attic and move back to his more natural position. This move is undeniably beneficial for both Chase and the Phils.
Before Utley's call-up on Wednesday, he was having a banner year at SWB. Back at his more natural position, he displayed solid defense and hit with a ferocity that always fit his makeup. Numbers can often be deceiving but in his case, they are quite legitimate. A .323 average earned on merit and the power numbers that jump out at a reader, 18 HR and 77 RBI. In fact, he was recently voted by the managers of the IL as the number one prospect in the league. This is quite an acknowledgment, as this league is known to separate the proverbial men from the boys. SWB has several major league prospects including third baseman Travis Chapman, and pitchers Ryan Madson, Josh Hancock and Geoff Geary. But if ever a player was ready for a promotion, Utley was.
All's well, you say? Let's see…. I hear questions ranging from "what we can expect during the difficult dog days of August and the sweaty palm days of September," to "can this boy amongst men play like a man?" Only father time will tell. However, this writer will attempt, in the canvass of his mind, to paint a picture of what to expect. Join me in this exercise.
Utley is a natural left-handed hitter with good gap power and adequate speed. Watch for him to become a household name as "doubles" machine and a consistent RBI force from the bottom of the order. Though Manager Bowa forgets to seek my counsel when making out his batting order, my tealeaves say that the seventh spot in the order will be perfect for him. The seventh spot will allow him to protect the righty hitting of Burrell and Lieberthal, and will give probable number eight hitter Jimmy Rollins more fast balls to hit.
The Phils then can present a very balanced order of righty and lefty hitters with the southpaw swings of Utley, Thome and Abreu - balancing out the righty hitting Burrell, Lieberthal, Polanco and Byrd. The switch-hitting Rollins can enjoy the fun either way. Though the Phils will continue to struggle in manufacturing runs with their lack of speed and bunting ability, Utley should help them become more versatile offensively.
Baseball is a forever changing game and one of the changes has been the emergence of the power hitter playing in the middle infield. Well-known players like Jeter, Garciaparra, Kent, and Tejada, are no longer luxuries, they have become necessities. Not since the heyday of Juan Samuel has the Phils had a middle infielder with the offensive potential of Utley. It should be exciting to watch.
So, Phillie faithful.... adjust the binoculars and re-focus towards the middle of the diamond at Veterans Stadium. On your mark, get set, go!
The Chase is officially on!
Columnist's Note: Suggestions, questions and comments welcome. Please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will respond! CD