Archive for Monday, January 22, 2007

Commentary: Paying Utley is the right thing to do

Work ethic, drive to win and annual production make $85 million a fair price tag

January 22, 2007


— 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 Sunday, 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.

Cost certainty was a phrase thrown around a lot when the Phils signed Pat Burrell to a six-year, $50 million extension after his big season in 2002.

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.


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