Chase Utley officially rejoins Dodgers, willing to accept bench role
The text messages reached Corey Seager as both a greeting and a warning. “Watch out when I come into second base next year,” Chase Utley wrote on occasion this past winter, when a reunion with the Dodgers looked so unlikely. Even his jokes contain a hint of menace.
Seager idolized Utley during their time together and considered him a friend. But if Utley signed elsewhere, Seager would become a rival. And on the diamond Utley pays little regard for friendship.
In January, the Dodgers acquired second baseman Logan Forsythe from Tampa Bay. Forsythe filled the void created by Utley’s free agency, and Utley himself assumed he would play elsewhere this season. Then, two weeks ago, he tapped out another message to Seager.
“Don’t worry about getting out of my way anymore,” Utley wrote. “I’ll see you next week.”
Utley was willing to accept a reduction in his role and his salary when he agreed to a one-year, $2-million contract. The deal became official on Saturday morning, soon after Utley arrived at Camelback Ranch. Though Manager Dave Roberts referred to him as an “every-day player,” Utley is expected back up Forsythe at second base and Adrian Gonzalez at first base.
“I think it’s not secret that I’m not getting any younger,” Utley said. “I understand that things change, and if I want to be part of a winning organization, there’s a possibility that I take this type of role. I’m up for it. I’m up for the challenge.”
Utley, 38, has maintained faith in his ability to aid the club on the field. His arrival also provides a psychic boost for a roster that was kept mostly intact after reaching the National League Championship Series last October. Though his presence on the roster, as a left-handed-hitting infielder, may be somewhat redundant, the Dodgers believe his value far exceeds his production.
Dodgers players, coaches and front office members speak of Utley with reverence. Clayton Kershaw intends to instruct his son to strive to replicate Utley’s effort on the field. Roberts refers to Utley’s steely consistency as unparalleled. Andrew Friedman, president of baseball operations, sees Utley’s behavior as a model for his peers.
“I’ve never been around a guy that, at basically any moment and time that you walk by him — in the clubhouse, on the field — is doing something to try to help us win a game,” Friedman said earlier this week.
The praise causes Utley to blush. He loathes talking about himself. But he does not deny the zeal he brings to his craft, studying scouting reports, scouring video, discussing strategy with his teammates.
“The name of the game is to win baseball game,” Utley said. “If you can find any edge in any different situation, I think it can be important.”
Iron Man no more for Gonzalez?
For the past 11 seasons, first baseman Adrian Gonzalez has averaged 159 games per year, never appearing in fewer than 156. He takes pride in his durability, even if the Dodgers may opt to reduce his appearances to some extent in 2017.
Gonzalez battled issues with his back and neck in 2016. He has struggled in the final month of the season the past two years, with a .694 on-base plus slugging percentage in September 2015 and a .645 OPS in September 2016. He is currently excused from swinging a bat for at least two weeks as he waits for inflammation in his right elbow to subside.
In addition to Utley, the Dodgers can also use Scott Van Slyke and Rob Segedin as Gonzalez’s backups during the season. Roberts suggested Gonzalez may need to rest more to conserve energy.
“It is important to Adrian to be out there and play 150-plus games,” Roberts said. “I respect that. But I think for the organization, it’s a conversation to curtail the number of games. Because we’re expecting to play deep in October and we need him to be as fresh as possible.”
Kershaw named starter for opening day
In the least surprising development of the spring, Roberts announced Clayton Kershaw would be the opening day starter for the seventh consecutive season. Kershaw will tie Don Drysdale and Don Sutton for the franchise record.
Kershaw smiled when asked if he had anything new to say about the honor.
“Any time you get to do it, it’s special,” he said. “No, I don’t really have anything different to say. It’s always fun. It’s fun to get the season going and get to be part of it. I’m thankful I’ve gotten to do it for so long with the same team. Not a lot of people get to do that.”
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