Utley agrees a few days off might help

In his on-going battle with Charlie Manuel to be in the lineup everyday, Chase Utley has finally blinked. The all-star second baseman is now acknowledging that Charlie knows best and he'll agree to an occasional off-day.

Given the statistical and anecdotal evidence that suggest Chase Utley's body wears down during the course of a long season, Charlie Manuel has, over the past few years, attempted to give him a few breathers.

Each time, Utley has stared a hole through the Phillies manager.

"Before, I gave Charlie a hard time when he tried to give me a day off," Utley said. "Now, I might not give him as hard a time."

It's been a restful winter for Utley, who moved to San Francisco to be closer to his wife's family; vacationed in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico; and recently spent a weekend in the Cayman Islands for Jimmy Rollins' wedding. But when he reports to spring training in a few weeks, the Phillies' All-Star second baseman will be as intense as ever.

Utley's unrelenting hustle and grind-it-out mentality have sparked comparisons to Pete Rose, but his production usually trails off late in the season, likely a byproduct of how hard he plays.

Last year, he batted .313 with 20 homers, 61 RBIs and a 1.004 on-base-plus-slugging percentage before the All-Star break, then only .246 with 11 homers, 32 RBIs and a .790 OBP after the break. In the season's final month, he hit .193, prompting many to wonder if he was playing hurt.

Turns out, Utley merely was fatigued. At age 31, and one year removed from hip surgery, his body likely takes longer to recover than it did when he was 25.

Utley said he has resumed his usual offseason workout routine without any of the restrictions placed upon him last winter while his hip healed. Since Thanksgiving, he has been lifting weights and strengthening his legs, and within the past few weeks, the majors' best offensive second baseman began swinging a bat.

Meanwhile, the Phillies made it an offseason priority to find more capable fill-ins. They came up with slick-fielding utility infielder Juan Castro and signed Gold Glove second baseman Placido Polanco, who usually will start at third but also could spell Utley every once in a while.

"It might be beneficial - on occasion," said Utley, who has played an average of 1,315 innings per year since 2005 and leads the majors with 76 hit-by-pitches over the past three seasons. "But it's difficult. We all want to be out there every single day no matter if you're feeling good or bad. We'll see how it plays out."

As for how the 2010 Phillies shape up, Utley is very optimistic about the moves the club has made, from trading for ace Roy Halladay to reacquiring Placido Polanco, with whom he platooned early in his career. Utley praised erstwhile ace Cliff Lee and admitted he imagined "for maybe five minutes" a rotation that included both Halladay and Lee, whom the Phillies dealt to Seattle for three prospects in a move that corresponded with the Halladay trade. "Any time you can get the best pitchers in baseball on your team, you would want that," Utley said. "But I trust what the front office does. ... You never know how it's going to pan out. But I do think, on paper, we have a pretty good team, maybe slightly better than last year."

Chase Utley's career stats first-half vs. second-half
1st Half 471 2027 1766 324 538 126 10 95 325 193 312 .305 .385 .549
2nd Half 420 1786 1544 278 440 91 16 66 260 167 294 .285 .372 .493

News, notes and quotes

-- Carlos Ruiz begins most conversations about his role with the Phillies with the same two words: "My pitchers ..." As a catcher, Ruiz knows his primary responsibilities are to call a game and aid the Phillies' pitchers in recording outs. He takes pride in their success and absorbs blame when they falter. And over the past two seasons, he has gained the pitchers' respect and forged a reputation as one of the majors' top defensive catchers. So, in only Ruiz's first year of arbitration, the Phillies agreed to give him a three-year, $8.85 million contract extension that became final January 26 when he passed a physical.

Ruiz, 31, will make $1.9 million this year, $2.75 million in 2011 and $3.7 million in 2012. The Phillies have a $5 million option (or a $500,000 buyout) for 2013 that would cover Ruiz's first year of free agency. He made $475,000 in 2009.

-- Jose Contreras intends to pitch in the majors for several more seasons, and to maximize that time, he's willing to pitch out of the bullpen, where he completed last season with the Rockies. After passing a physical January 28, the 38-year-old finalized a one-year, $1.5 million contract with the Phillies, who believe he's best-suited to be a reliever.

Contreras made just five relief appearances and only twice pitched on back-to-back days after being traded to the Rockies on August 31. As a reliever, he allowed eight hits and four walks. He struck out seven in 7 1/3 innings and posted a 1.23 ERA.

"It's taking a little bit of a leap of faith," GM Ruben Amaro Jr. said of using Contreras in the bullpen. "But he's been pretty durable. He really hasn't had any arm issues, and he checked out fine. He's a big horse. Our guys really like what he can bring to the table for us."

Brian Bocock, who has played in the majors with San Francisco, was claimed off waivers from the Toronto Blue Jays.

-- Cole Hamels is the linchpin to the success of the Phillies rotation, and although manager Charlie Manuel said he hasn't talked to the 26-year-old since the World Series, he has received a positive report on Hamels' workouts from trainer Scott Sheridan.

Pitching coach Rich Dubee wants Hamels to refine his curveball and make his fastball-changeup repertoire less predictable. Manuel agrees.

"I always told him, 'I used to tell you to throw more curveballs. You used to get by (without it),'" Manuel said. "I didn't push him. He can throw a curveball. Consistency is the big thing with it. He has to improve his curveball. It doesn't matter to me if it's his curveball or if he comes up with a slider."

Brian Bocock was claimed off waivers by the Phillies and figures to give the club infield depth, most likely at Triple-A Lehigh Valley. Bocock, 24, spent last season in the Blue Jays organization. He is a .143 hitter with two RBI in 32 major league games, all with San Francisco in 2008.

He said what?  "I saw a picture the other day, and my stomach was over my belt. I went, 'That's a pretty big gut.' I was carrying around a lot of weight." - Manager Charlie Manuel, who has lost 58 pounds since last spring and now weighs 228.

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