When I first arrived on the Phillies beat in February of 2008, the storyline du jour surrounded Chase Utley, and whether he would extend the team's run of National League MVPs to three in a row. It was one of those questions that was old by the second week of spring training. And by the start of the regular season, any question involving the words "Chase" and "MVP" created an Ambien-like effect on its recipient (minus the random nude drive around the neighborhood).
So I couldn't help but be struck with a sort of deja vu toward the end of a quick Q+A with Jayson Werth yesterday, when the conversation veered toward that topic. I was working on a story on Utley's baserunning, which I wrote about earlier this offseason on the blog, and which I tried to flesh out in greater detail in today's paper. My working hypothesis held that Utley was as good of a pure baserunner as any player in the National League, and the numbers that attempt to quantify such things seemed to back that assertion up. That might be unfair to a player like Jimmy Rollins, whose speed overshadows his instincts, and who might very well have a ridiculous season on the basepaths with a No. 2 hitter like Placido Polanco hitting behind him. But the fact is, Utley went first-to-third on a single and first-to-home on a double more times than any player in the National League last season, and over the last five years has "taken" more bases than any player in the majors except the Indians' Grady Sizemore.
Anyway, Werth was talking about Utley's instincts on the basepaths, and about the completeness of his game, and I couldn't help but ask if it would surprise him if Utley ripped off one of those epic seasons in 2010, much like Rollins did in 2007.
"You mean, like MVP?" Werth asked.
I couldn't tell if the question was accompanied by a slight roll of the eyes, but it felt that way, if only because the run-up to 2008 had conditioned me to regurgitate in my mouth any time somebody asked it.
Still, well, yeah -- MVP.
"Even without being an MVP each year, he's right there," Werth said. "I'm not going to tell you that he can't, that's for sure. That's been the talk ever since I got to Philly. In '08 we had a high potential for having three guys in a row. Any year, he's got it in him. It's just a matter of the stars and the moon and shore all aligning."
Utley looks bigger this year, particularly in his upper half. Talk to people in the Phillies clubhouse, particularly those on the coaching staff, and they'll express a belief that Utley is more healthy right now than he has been at any point since he started that 2008 season on a tear. Davey Lopes said earlier this week he thought Utley had to have been hampered last season by the hip surgery that he underwent in the offseason, surgery that repaired a torn labrum he suffered at some point in 2008. There is no doubt that a bruised foot limited him late last season.
"With Chase, you never really know," Lopes said of the tight-lipped star.
So it's worth noting that in 2007, Utley hit .332 with a .410 on base percentage. And that over the last two seasons he has hit 64 home runs and stole 37 bases, both career highs, despite whatever physical limitations he has endured. And it's worth noting that the four batters hitting behind him are as talented a group as he has had in his seven years with the Phillies (Ryan Howard, Jayson Werth, Raul Ibanez, Shane Victorino). And it's worth noting that in Placido Polanco and Juan Castro, he has two players who could provide him with more regular rest at second base.
I'm not in the business of making concrete predictions about the teams I cover. A 162-game baseball season can be a shredder of paper champions. But with all the talk about Roy Halladay and Werth and Cole Hamels, I wouldn't be surprised to see No. 26 become a major storyline in 2010.
And not just on the basepaths.