Tuesday, February 24, 2015

2015: A Make Or Break Year For Many


Utley Staying Put – Chase Utley has not changed his mind. Not yet anyway. The veteran second baseman said Monday afternoon at Bright House Field that he still has no desire to waive his no-trade rights and play for anybody other than the Phillies. It has been a topic of conversation for months, especially since December when the Phillies traded Jimmy Rollins to the Dodgers. Rollins said repeatedly for more than a year he had no desire to leave Philadelphia, but he heard the Phillies' front office talk about rebuilding for 2017 or 2018 and decided he had a better chance to win a World Series elsewhere. Why would Utley, 36, want to stay and possibly spend the final years of his career in a rebuilding effort? "I really enjoy playing with this organization," he said. "They've done a lot for me, personally, and put together some pretty good teams over the years. So I have a lot of respect for the people making decisions. They've always put together a great bunch of guys. We made it work out. We've had some great opportunities over the years and I respect that." But those warm and fuzzy feelings about Philadelphia came with a caveat. "For as much respect as I have for the organization, if they ever came to me and asked me, I would have to listen," he said. "But I don't think much will change." Utley opens his 13th season with the Phillies toeing the line and saying publicly he believes the Phillies can compete. They certainly need him to be healthy and productive to have a shot at that. Utley's knees have been an issue in the past. He said they feel fine. But he revealed Monday he sprained his right ankle in January, when he stepped awkwardly on a baseball. It is an issue entering camp. "That kind of put a wrinkle in things," Utley said. "I'm still kind of dealing with it right now. It's improved dramatically over the past two weeks, but it's still not perfect. Early in the camp, I'm still going to take care of it. Last thing I want to do is do too much on it. Range of motion is almost there. The strength is not quite where I want it to be. The last thing I want to do is compensate for it and set off some type of chain reaction." If Utley is ready to start the season, he will be hitting third, but the Phillies would welcome more production. His .755 OPS in the No. 3 hole last season ranked 18th out of 20 hitters with 400 or more plate appearances in that spot. Runs could be extremely difficult to find in 2015. That is just one reason why the Phillies are not expected to contend, which could have Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee, Jonathan Papelbon and possibly Ryan Howard headed elsewhere before the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline. If that happens, then maybe Utley listens to a trade proposal. "I think it would change some things," he said. Utley probably listens anyway. "You're going to a hypothetical situation there, so it's hard to really say," he said. "But I have so much respect for the organization that I wouldn't completely push Ruben [Amaro Jr.] away and say, 'Absolutely not. I'm not even going to hear it.' I would listen to him out of respect for him and the entire organization and kind of go from there. I want nothing more than to play for this organization for as long as I can. "It's going to look a little bit different than it has in the past. I'm looking forward to getting going, working with some guys, and looking to improve. I think we have a much better team than people think."

Fresh Year? – Ryan Howard appeared to be in fine spirits Monday afternoon at Bright House Field. He would not have been blamed for being morose. Howard had an interesting offseason. He settled an ugly legal battle with his family. He not only learned the Phillies wanted to trade him to help their rebuilding efforts, but he heard general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. say on Philadelphia radio he told Howard they would be better without him. Ouch. Howard declined to speak to reporters on the eve of the team's first full-squad workout Tuesday at Carpenter Complex. But Howard is here and will try to prove his doubters wrong. "It's a new season, a fresh year for him," Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg said. "I had a good talk with him about working on his complete game, defensively, running and getting all that in, and I think that will help him with his whole game as well as his offense. It's not about working on one thing and being one dimensional, it's about working on his whole game. And so with the way that he looks, it should be a good camp for him." Sandberg said he does not expect the speculation about Howard's future to bother him. "He's a professional and like everyone," Sandberg said. "He's in camp to get ready for a season, get in the best shape possible and get ready to go to help us win. Whatever else happens is on the business side of things and there's nothing you can do about that."

Is This A Make Or Break Year? – If Domonic Brown is concerned about his future in Philadelphia, he kept those thoughts to himself Monday at Bright House Field. Brown will open the season as the Phillies' right fielder, but with plenty to prove following a poor 2014 campaign. He made the 2013 National League All-Star team, but hit just .235 with 10 home runs, 63 RBIs and a .634 OPS in 144 games last season. His OPS ranked 139th out of 147 qualified hitters in baseball. "I don't know what they've got planned for me, man," Brown said. "I think I know myself a little better every single year. I looked at last year as a learning experience as well. Even though I had some struggles, I think I ended the season on a decent note." Brown cited a poor May for skewing his overall numbers. He hit .146 with a .503 OPS that month. He hit .250 with a .686 OPS after the All-Star break. If he had posted a .686 OPS the entire season, it would have ranked 122nd in baseball. But Brown is getting a chance to play because the Phillies need to see if he can be the player they saw in 2013, when he hit .272 with 27 homers, 83 RBIs and an .818 OPS. If he is, then they know they have a right fielder for the foreseeable future. If not, then they know they need to look elsewhere. "I really don't even put that in my mind," Brown said about his future in Philadelphia. "We'll see what happens. That's part of the business as well. All I can do is prepare myself every day to be a Philadelphia Phillie until I get traded." Brown returns to right field after the Phils traded Marlon Byrd to the Reds. "I'm not even getting into it," Brown said, asked if a position change could make him more comfortable on the field. "Wherever I'm at, I'm going to have fun playing, wherever I am on the baseball field. Is it going to get me more comfortable at the plate? I really don't know. I have a really different mindset this year, and that's going out and having a lot of fun. I know what my ability [is]. I'm going to do what I'm [capable of doing]." Brown said he and his teammates have not been on the "same page" recently. He would not elaborate, other than to say the "Phillie Way is playing hard, running balls out, taking the extra base." He would not say if those players remain in the clubhouse. He only would say he wants to win. "That's my biggest goal," Brown said. "Whether I'm sitting on the bench or playing every single day, it really doesn't matter. I'm going out there and I'm making sure that I'm going to give my team a chance to win a ballgame."

Dugan’s Latest Tough Break – Phillies outfielder Kelly Dugan cannot catch a break. Dugan, who was selected by Philadelphia in the second round of the 2009 First-Year Player Draft, strolled through the Phillies' clubhouse Monday morning at Bright House Field with a walking boot on his right foot. He sustained a mild stress reaction while running sprints recently. Dugan is expected to be sidelined at least a couple of weeks, which includes another four or five days in the boot. Dugan, 24, has sustained a rash of injuries over the years, including a staph infection in 2009. He had a stress fracture in his back in '10-11, which limited him to 75 games. Turf toe removed Dugan from the '13 Arizona Fall League, then an oblique injury sidelined him early last season, before he ended the year with a broken foot. When healthy, Dugan has been productive. He posted an .818 OPS in 290 plate appearances last season with Double-A Reading, and he has an .819 OPS in six Minor League seasons.

The Phillies will look to rebound this season from a 73-89 record last year. While uncertainty abounds, there is little question that the franchise is in rebuild mode based on the moves and statements that have been made during the offseason. The only question that remains is whether or not the young and veteran talent on the team can work together to disprove Gillick’s predictions either this year or next.

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