Contract extension for Utley? Sure feels like it

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Contract extension for Utley? Sure feels like it

ST. LOUIS -- Are the Phillies nearing a contract extension with Chase Utley?

The hunch here is that they might be.

Something seems to be brewing.

Again, it’s just a hunch, but we thought we’d share it anyway.

The Phillies are always super quiet when it comes to contract matters -- sometimes they even fib -- and Utley is intensely private.

So this hunch is based on observations, conversations and signs.

To wit:

• A person with knowledge of the situation says the Phillies have had recent talks with Utley’s representation about a contract extension.

• Word in well-placed baseball circles is that the Phillies are not listening to trade offers for Utley.

• The decision to broaden second-base prospect Cesar Hernandez’s utility skills by having him play some outfield shouldn’t be underestimated, especially upon further review of the comment that GM Ruben Amaro Jr. made to CSNPhilly.com on Sunday.

“If we’re fortunate enough to keep Chase in our uniform, which we hope to do, Cesar becomes a utility piece,” Amaro said Sunday.

• In the same conversation, Amaro was asked point blank if he’d begun to speak with Utley’s representation about an extension.

“We wouldn’t discuss it even if we did,” he said.

He didn’t say no. Amaro isn’t always forthcoming when it comes to matters of negotiations, but he has a way of shooting down the ridiculous. He didn’t shoot this one down.

There are other signs:

• Wednesday on the team’s official website, an advertisement promoting next week’s three-game series against the Giants featured a picture of Utley. Two of those games come after the trade deadline. Would the Phils use a player they were planning to trade to promote a series that comes up right after the trade deadline? Doubtful.

And don’t think the trade deadline is not significant. Utley can be a free agent at the end of the season. The best way to get value for him would be to deal him before waivers would be needed between Aug. 1 and Aug. 21. Utley gains full no-trade rights on Aug. 22 when he reaches 10 years in the majors and five with the same club.

It is difficult to imagine the Phillies would risk having Utley walk and get nothing for him. If they’re not trading him, they’re probably committed to extending him.

• The Phils will give out posters of Utley on the next homestand. That could be a sign that they plan to extend the relationship, though last year they followed through on a long-planned Hunter Pence Bobblehead giveaway after the outfielder was traded.

Around the time Pence was traded, the Phils announced a contract extension for Cole Hamels. So even as the Phils were dumping players -- as could happen next week -- they were sending a message to their fans that they intended to keep their best and most recognizable talent. It might make marketing sense to send this message again soon as the Phils have 34 home games remaining. They want to sell tickets regardless if they stay in the race or not.

And finally, there is this sign that the Phillies and Utley might be nearing a contract extension:

• Amaro, the man who has said he wants to make Utley a Phillie for life, and Utley, who as far back as spring training said he’d like to stay with the club, have recently been spotted huddling for private conversations at the ballpark.

Bet they’re not talking about sushi restaurants, though there is a good one right around the corner from Busch Stadium if this hunch proves to be a whole lot of bunk.

Tonight's lineup: Tommy Joseph's last start of the year?

Tonight's lineup: Tommy Joseph's last start of the year?

Tommy Joseph, who has been missing from the lineup lately, starts at first base and bats fourth tonight.

Joseph will most likely be making his final start of the season with Ryan Howard expected to start the final games of the season. Joseph is batting just .235 against the Braves this season, but does have two home runs. The rookie first baseman has 21 home runs and 15 doubles in 104 games during his first season in the majors. 

Howard will be playing what are almost definitely his final games in a Phillies uniform this weekend vs. the Mets.

Maikel Franco bats fifth and plays third base. Franco, who has been hot lately, has three home runs and is batting .320 over his last 25 at-bats. He will look to continue his success against the Braves, as five of his 25 home runs this season have come against them.

Cameron Rupp gets a day off behind the plate and will be replaced by veteran catcher A.J. Ellis. Ellis has exceeded expectations in a short sample since coming over in the Carlos Ruiz trade last month. Ellis is 8 for 28 with a home run and nine RBIs in 10 games with the Phils. He's batting .285, which is astronomically better than his paltry .194 mark with the Dodgers. 

Part of the reason for Ellis' start could be his history against Braves starter Josh Collmenter. He is 4 for 11 with two home runs and four walks against the former Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher.

Here is tonight's lineup:

1. Cesar Hernandez, 2B
2. Freddy Galvis, SS
3. Odubel Herrera, CF
4. Tommy Joseph, 1B
5. Maikel Franco, 3B
6. Cody Asche, LF
7. A.J. Ellis, C
8. Aaron Altherr, RF
9. Jeremy Hellickson, P

And for the Braves:

1. Mallex Smith, CF
2. Dansby Swanson, SS
3. Freddie Freeman, 1B
4. Matt Kemp, LF
5. Nick Markakis, RF
6. Anthony Recker, C
7. Jace Peterson, 2B
8. Rio Ruiz, 3B
9. Josh Collmenter, P

Phillies MVP Jerad Eickhoff proved people wrong, changed expectations

Phillies MVP Jerad Eickhoff proved people wrong, changed expectations

It feels appropriate with the season coming to an end and the recent struggles of the Phillies' entire pitching staff to again point out how consistent Jerad Eickhoff has been in 2016.

Tuesday's rain delay likely cost him a shot at reaching 200 innings — he's sitting on 191⅓ with one start left — but his season has obviously been a success whether or not he reaches that mark. 

Some may argue Odubel Herrera has been the Phillies' MVP this season, but I'd go Eickhoff. Maybe that's just based on the inconsistencies of his rotation mates, but there's real value in a guy who gives you six quality innings each time out. Eickhoff this season was basically John Lackey — a reliable mid-rotation workhorse with solid but unspectacular numbers.

ESPN's longtime prospect analyst Keith Law mentioned Eickhoff this week in an Insider post looking at players he judged incorrectly. Eickhoff and Cubs Cy Young candidate Kyle Hendricks were the first two pitchers mentioned.

In his assessment of what went wrong with his initial evaluation of Eickhoff, Law wrote:

"I hadn't seen Eickhoff in the minors and, based on what I'd heard about him, had him as a back-end starter, saying he had the repertoire to start but giving him a limited, back-end ceiling. Eickhoff had a good curveball with Texas. But the Phillies' staff has encouraged him to throw it more often, and it's been a difference-making pitch for him. His curve accounted for 40 percent of his swings and misses in 2016, and it's one of the most effective curveballs in MLB right now; that pitch alone has made him more than just a back-end starter, and he has been the Phillies' most valuable starter this year. He is probably a league-average, No. 3 starter going forward with the arsenal he has — average fastball, plus curveball, inconsistent slider that flashes plus but on which he makes too many mistakes — and with 4-WAR potential, given his durability."

Eickhoff's curveball was what made a lot of us take notice late last season. He used it to shut down some good lineups in September, and he finished 2015 with back-to-back seven-inning, 10-strikeout games against the Nationals and Mets.

This season, he grew up. He incorporated the slider more and that led him out of an early-season funk. Early in the year, hitters were laying off his curveball and swinging at any fastball near the zone because it's a hittable pitch. Once he started showing another breaking ball, the game plan for the opposition became more complicated.

There was nothing fluky about Eickhoff's 2016 season. He'll enter the final day of the season 11-14 with a 3.72 ERA and 1.17 WHIP. 

It's pretty startling to compare Eickhoff's numbers since joining the Phillies to Cole Hamels' with the Rangers. Have a look.

• Hamels with the Rangers (44 starts): 3.42 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 2.8 K/BB ratio, .244 opponents' batting average

• Eickhoff with the Phillies (40 starts): 3.49 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 3.9 K/BB ratio, .244 opponents' batting average

It's not an apples to apples comparison because Hamels has pitched about 40 more innings than Eickhoff in a tougher league and in a tougher ballpark. It doesn't mean that going forward they will be equals. It just means that over the last season and a half, their production has been close to equal.

Nobody would have expected a year ago that Eickhoff would be the best piece in that trade. But until Jorge Alfaro and Nick Williams graduate to the majors in full-time roles and produce, Eickhoff will be the unexpected centerpiece of that blockbuster deal with the Rangers.

He's a walking example of solid scouting and even better player development by the Phillies.

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