Who will play 3B for Phillies next season?
Chase Utley made sure Cody Asche's locker was next to his when the third baseman was called up this season. (USA Today Images)
It was not a coincidence that Cody Asche ended up with a locker right next to Chase Utley in the Phillies’ clubhouse when he came to the majors in July.
Utley had gotten to know Asche in spring training and thought there was something special there. So he mentioned to the clubhouse staff that he’d give up the veteran’s perk of a vacant next-door locker as long as Asche was moving in.
“I know that when you’re a young guy, it’s nice to have someone who has been around to help navigate you in the right direction,” Utley said. “Pat Burrell did it for me. He took me under his wing and I always appreciated it.”
Asche, 23, had some ups and downs during his two-month audition in the majors, but the ups were impressive enough that he will come into spring training in February as the “lead candidate” -- manager Ryne Sandberg’s words -- to be the Phillies’ starting third baseman in 2014.
Before the Phillies’ season-ending game Sunday in Atlanta, Asche praised the 34-year-old Utley for mentoring him and making him feel comfortable during his two-month stint in the big leagues.
“Chase has been huge from a preparation standpoint,” Asche said. “Just seeing what he does -- video, [batting] cage work, getting his body ready … Everything has been helpful.”
Asche knows that Utley was behind his locker assignment in the home clubhouse and was flattered by it.
“That’s what a leader does,” Asche said. “They can sense people that need a little guidance and they do that stuff. That makes him a great leader, like Jimmy (Rollins), Cole (Hamels), Chooch (Ruiz).”
Utley is a stickler for preparation. He has to be. He has to constantly be on top of his physical regimen to ward off pain flare-ups in his knees. After missing significant time in 2011 and 2012 because of cartilage issues in both knees, he was able to stay on the field in 2013. He played in 131 games, his most since 2009, and hit .284 with 18 homers and 69 RBIs. His did spend a month on the disabled list, but it was for an oblique injury, not a knee problem. The knee condition will never go away, but Utley is confident he can manage it and remain on the field. So is Phillies management, which gave him a multi-year contract extension in August.
Utley has learned that restarting baseball activities after a layoff can be hell on his knees. That’s why he never stopped doing baseball work last offseason. He worked out year-round with the baseball team at the University of San Francisco and will do so again this offseason.
“I feel like the improvements we’ve made the past year have been significant,” Utley said. “I don’t anticipate any change.”
Asche also has some offseason plans.
He started his big-league career 1 for 17 but hit .304 with five homers, 19 RBIs and an .889 OPS in his next 32 games before tailing off and finishing with just three hits in his final 33 at-bats.
He would like to get stronger this winter.
“I want to be strong and in shape when I come into camp so I can make the most of those six weeks,” he said.
GM Ruben Amaro Jr. has resisted anointing Asche as the team’s third baseman for 2014. Makes sense. He wants to keep Asche hungry. Besides, the Phils will have another promising third baseman in camp, slugger Maikel Franco. The 21-year-old combined to hit .320 with 31 homers and 103 RBIs at Single A and Double A in 2013.
“I frankly hope there is a great competition in spring training between Maikel and Cody,” Amaro said. “That can create a heck of a situation for us. They’re both very, very good young players.”
Asche knows Franco is coming hard. He will be ready for the competition. He is confident, but takes nothing for granted.
“I think the biggest thing I’ve learned is that I can play here,” Asche said on the final day of the season. “I have confidence in myself. That’s what I took away. But you can’t stop adjusting. I made some adjustments after I got here, the pitchers made some adjustments, and now I have to make another one.
“For me, there will be a light at the end of the tunnel all winter: Make the team, be part of a winning team.
“I don’t look at it as it’s my job to lose. I look at it as it’s a spot I need to get. I put it on myself to make the decision easy for them.”
For the record, Utley believes Asche will be the Phils’ opening day third baseman in 2014.
“I don’t see why not,” Utley said. “I think he’s going to be a good one. He’s got talent. I think he’s going to keep getting better. The fact that he wants to improve and get better is an encouraging sign.”