CLEARWATER, Fla. -- This concluded the week of optimism for the Phillies.
Chase Utley said in a news conference on Friday afternoon that his knees feel good -- so good that he plans to play in Grapefruit League games this month and be in the Phillies' lineup on Opening Day. Utley followed Roy Halladay on Wednesday and Ryan Howard on Thursday, who also declared themselves in fine health and ready to play this season.
The Phillies certainly hope those mid-month self-health evaluations hold truer than last February, when Utley said his chronically injured knees felt great, only to miss the first 76 games of the season.
Utley swears this time is different.
"I feel pretty damn good right now," he said. "I think I trained a little more differently. I trained to play baseball, not just to take pressure off my knees. So it's worked. It's given me strength in my legs, which I can already feel a difference taking ground balls, swinging the bat. There is something there, where in the last few years there hasn't been."
Utley, 34, expressed his optimism in a text message to Phillies manager Charlie Manuel shortly before Christmas.
"If you'll be a good boy, you might get a healthy second baseman," Manuel said Utley wrote.
Manuel took that as a good sign.
"Chase don't say nothing," the skipper said. "I think he might talk to me more than he does other people. He doesn't say too much. It told me quite a bit. For him, that was a whole lot. I got a whole lot out of it."
Utley has not played in a Grapefruit League game since 2010, and has opened the previous two seasons on the disabled list. He played in his first regular-season game in 2011 on May 23, and in 2012 on June 27. But even when Utley returned he looked like a shadow of his former self. He hit a combined .258 with 22 home runs and 89 RBIs in 699 at-bats in 189 games over those two seasons. Utley also had a .353 on-base percentage, .423 slugging percentage and .780 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, compared to a .388 on-base percentage, .523 slugging percentage and .911 OPS from 2005-10, when he was a perennial All-Star and seemingly on his way to a Hall of Fame career.
It remains to be seen if Utley can approach those numbers again, but he said he believes he at least can be on the field from the beginning to the end. He changed his offseason training program, which included a continuation of baseball activities.
"I basically didn't stop playing baseball, which is something I hadn't done in the past," Utley said.
Utley started to field ground balls at the University of San Francisco a week following the season. He fielded anywhere between 50-80 balls a couple times a week for about six weeks. He built up to three times a week before going three to four times a week last month.
"I wanted to change it up and do something different," Utley said. "The program that I followed last year didn't work for me to get on the field. That was the main reason. ... Obviously, I started slow as far as my training went and I made progression that I hadn't done in three or four years. And that was something that I enjoyed doing. I wanted to get my legs stronger and do it without irritating my knees. That can be difficult at times and the one thing I did a little different was distributing my weight different in my body. I wanted to get more weight in my legs and less in my upper body. Hopefully that would be beneficial and so far, it has."
Utley is entering the final year of a seven-year, $85 million contract, which means this could be his final year with the Phillies.
"I'm obviously aware of that, but I don't think it really changes anything that I've done," he said. "I've approached every season the same way. The last few years didn't go well as far as getting on the field initially. So yeah, obviously you know about it but you're not going to change anything."
A good season could push both parties into extending their relationship. But if Utley gets hurt again and his production continues to dip, the Phillies might want to get younger and go in a different direction, although they would miss his clubhouse leadership.
"I feel I have a lot to still do in this game," Utley said. "So who knows? I'd like to play more than this year, that's for sure."
Will it be with the Phillies? He has a lot to say about that.
Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less