Jim Salisbury | In it to win it: The team gambles on the second baseman's yearning for a title.
Some pro athletes are in it for the money and others for the championships.
You usually can tell the ones in it for the money. As soon as they get it, they lose a little of their drive, a little of their edge, a little of the competitive spirit that helped them become professional athletes in the first place. They start shrugging after losses and 0 for 4s and saying "Whatever."
Chase Utley is not one to use that word, at least in that context. He's in it for the championships, for the winning. That's why, even with all the money and risk tied to long-term contracts, the Phillies made a sound investment yesterday, giving their popular and indispensable second baseman the longest guaranteed deal in franchise history - seven years, $85 million.
With the contract, the Phils bought out Utley's three arbitration years and locked him up through four possible free-agent years. They gained valuable cost certainty and - at an average of $12.1 million per season, less than the Dodgers paid shortstop Rafael Furcal last winter - might have gotten themselves a bargain if the market continues to spiral upward and Utley continues to climb in stature.
At the time, the deal seemed to make sense, but now that's debatable. The Phillies have said as much with their efforts to unload Burrell in the last year. In retrospect, the Phils would have been better served going year-to-year with him.
But these are the risks of long-term deals.
Utley, 28, is a good risk for several reasons.
First, he's a super talent. He led all major-league second basemen in hits (361), runs (224), homers (60) and RBIs (207) over the last two seasons, and we'd bet he'll do it a whole bunch more before this contract expires, two months before his 35th birthday. Utley has a short, powerful, uncomplicated swing. Sure, he'll go into funks at times - who doesn't? - but it's difficult to see him having any lost seasons, especially with that swing.
Utley is supremely dedicated to the game and his craft - hitting. Hard work has almost been inbred in him, from the time he used to do odd jobs at the batting cages in his California hometown so the owner would give him extra swings.
Teammate Jimmy Rollins marveled at Utley one day last summer, as Utley was in the midst of a 35-game hitting streak. Utley had already hit in 30-plus games when the team arrived in oven-like St. Louis for a three-game series.
"It was 100 degrees and he was out there for early hitting," an incredulous Rollins said at the time. "That tells you about Chase's work ethic."
Offensive production and work ethic aren't the only talents that make Utley a good investment. The guy's intangibles are off the charts. His style of play - all-out, all-the-time - has made him one of the game's most respected players among his peers, not to mention the hometown fans. He's a brilliant baserunner, partly because he's smart, partly because he always runs full-throttle.
With Utley locked up, the Phils turn their attention to Ryan Howard. The Phils have continually identified the National League MVP as a keystone of the team, right along with Utley.
But Howard can't be a free agent until after the 2011 season. The urgency to get a deal done with him isn't the same as it was with Utley, who was arbitration-eligible and closer to free agency.
The Phils ought to make sure Howard gets the biggest one-year deal ever for a player with two years of service time. Send him well above the $900,000 Albert Pujols got with similar service time in 2003. If he has another big season in 2007, the Phils will be begging him to do a long-term deal next winter, when he's likely to be eligible for arbitration and finally has some leverage, like Utley had this winter.
It would be silly to say Utley doesn't care about money. Financial security was important to him, and he got it in a fair deal. But more than anything, Utley cares about winning, and that will not change just because he is now wealthy beyond most folks' imagination. Money won't alter his desire to get better every day and it won't dull his desire to win a championship. He has a Brian Dawkins-like, leadership-backed-up-by-talent quality to him. May others light their fires from it.
"Even though he was born and raised in California, I think Chase feels as if he's a native Philadelphian," said Utley's agent, Arn Tellem, who is a native Philadelphian and knows what makes people here tick. "He wants to retire as a Phillie and bring a World Series championship to Philadelphia."
Tellem might be a paid advocate of Utley's, but if you've watched Utley play these last three seasons, you believe every word.
Time will tell, but it looks as if the Phillies made a good investment yesterday.
Contact staff writer Jim Salisbury
at 215-854-4983 or email@example.com.