There's a reason why baseball people rank the first round of the 2000 draft among the sorriest in history. Between Adrián González at the top and Adam Wainwright at No. 29, you'll find a lot of guys you never heard of, like Luis Montañez and Mike Stodolka and Matt Wheatland (see chart). But smack dab in the middle of the carnage, at No. 15, the Phillies landed Chase Utley.
Eight years after signing for a $1.78 million bonus out of UCLA, the 29-year-old second baseman has two All-Star appearances, a 35-game hitting streak and a pair of Silver Slugger Awards on his résumé. "He's the best hitter in baseball right now, in my opinion," says Padres pitcher Chris Young. "He's got a short, quick swing combined with a great idea of the strike zone. He makes you come to him—and when you do, he crushes it."
In 2006, Utley hit 32 homers, scored 131 runs and stole 15 bases. Last year, he had 22 homers with 103 RBIs, and would have been an MVP candidate if he hadn't missed a month with a broken right hand. This April, he picked up the power pace, leading the majors with 10 home runs. He also has become one of the smartest baserunners in the game.
Back in 2001, Baseball America compared Utley to former first-round picks Adam Kennedy and Todd Walker, both line-drive hitters with defensive shortcomings. But Phillies assistant GM Mike Arbuckle, who tracked Utley in Westwood and, before that, at Long Beach Poly High, loved the kid's quick bat, hand-eye coordination, maturity and devotion to detail. Arbuckle says that every time he visited the field, Utley was immersed in drills: "He was just a baseball rat."
But while Arbuckle projected him as a .300 hitter, Utley's home run power took the Phillies by surprise. "I didn't envision him being able to get up around 30," Arbuckle says. "As he matured and developed more strength in his hands and forearms, he generated more bat speed. That was the element we were light on."
Utley's glove has always been a work in progress. In college, he looked jittery and stiff at second base, and Arbuckle thought he might have to shift to leftfield. Six years ago, after the Phillies traded Scott Rolen to St. Louis, they tried Utley at third in the minors. He returned to second the following spring, and has developed into a competent middle infielder by taking thousands of grounders.
The one skill Utley has yet to master is self-promotion. He relies on monotonal cliché-speak when reporters approach him for insights into his game. His approach brings to mind the Zen of Greg Maddux, who goes out of his way to be dull to avoid providing glimpses into his baseball soul. In Utley's world, success is almost solely a reflection of hard work. That's his story, and he's sticking to it. "The more practice, the better," he says. "The more at-bats you have and pitches you see, and the more ground balls you take and game situations you're in, the more comfortable you get."
And the more you watch Chase Utley, the more you marvel. He is better than anyone ever expected—something you can't say about the rest of the guys drafted around him.