The Phillies Are Old and Creaking

The team's best April on record is masking a big problem

Since the Phillies finished April with the most wins in franchise history for the month and continued to have the best record in the National League, even after Sunday night/Monday morning’s 2-1, 14-inning, slugfest loss to the fetid Mets, I am risking the wrath of Philadelphia fans by elevating the level of concern about the team from “Parade” to “Damn Yankees.” Next up is “Rocky Mountain Low,” followed closely by “The Reds? Seriously, the Reds?” and “I Can’t Believe the Marlins Beat Us.”

During the past several seasons, fans have been able to assuage any concerns about slow starts and injury problems by reminding themselves that it’s a long season and that the Phillies always play better in August and September than during April and May. That has been a reliable security blanket and an accurate assessment. Last year, the Phils went 21-6 in the season’s last full month to pull away from the Braves. In 2009, another strong finish clinched the division crown. So, it’s reasonable to think that if this year’s club broke from the gates in such fine fashion, it could well win 105 games with a typical September.

The problem in 2011 is that the season’s length might actually work against the Phillies. When you’re old and creaking, it’s not a good idea to take part in pursuits that tax you over long periods of time. At the rate the Phils are sending players to the disabled list, their everyday lineup may be populated entirely by September call-ups from the Iron Pigs. That’s not exactly the preferred way to get Domonic Brown in the lineup.

The Phillies have the third-oldest team in baseball, behind the Yankees and Red Sox. Experience certainly counts, but young talent is valuable, too. Every member of the Phillies’ starting lineup is at least 30, except for Ben Francisco, who checks in at a cherubic 29. Cole Hamels is the only starter under 30, and while the bullpen includes pups Antonio Bastardo (25), David Herndon (25) and 26-year old Kyle Kendrick (Michael Stutes and Mike Zagurski are youngsters, too), three of the relievers expected to make big contributions this year are on the DL. Surprise! They’re all 32 or older. So is Chase Utley, whose birth certificate may say 32, but whose body is about 60.

This is a team with a lot of mileage on it. And like most things that are older – cars, appliances, bladders — it’s wise not to put a lot of stress on it. A 162-game season qualifies as extremely demanding, and that could be this team’s ultimate downfall. The opportunity for injury alone is cause for worry. We have already seen a collection of cranky arms, knees and backs tax the team’s bench and farm system. But there is more at work here. While it’s never wise to use one month as an indicator of an entire season, some things are pretty obvious right now.

First, Raul Ibanez, if not completely finished, is wheezing to the finish line. His epic 0-fer that continued Sunday night with another four hitless at-bats shows that while he is in dynamite physical condition, his baseball skills have atrophied. Another couple days of this, and it may be time to insert John Mayberry, Jr. into the lineup full-time. While that isn’t exactly replacing Ibanez with Shin-Soo Choo, it would be an upgrade.

The Jimmy Rollins situation isn’t much better. He’s hitting a not-awful .271 but has a measly five RBI and just six extra-base hits from the three hole. Granted, Rollins isn’t a three-hole hitter. He would be better right now hitting seventh. But there can be no denying the drop in his productivity, which has been steady since his 2007 MVP season. If Utley comes back, and Rollins can be dropped in the lineup, he might pick up or at least not be such a glaring weakness. For now, he appears to be a declining asset.

Finally, the number of pitches Phillies starters are throwing has to be reason for concern. With the bullpen compromised by injury, the fortitude and toughness shown by Messrs. Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels are greatly appreciated, because let’s face it; nobody wants to see Herndon out there every night. But letting Halladay throw 130 pitches in April is not a good idea. Sunday, it took Cliff Lee 113 to get through seven innings. Those throws add up, and by October there could be trouble, no matter how hard these guys work. Remember Halladay’s groin strain last October? He gutted his way through it in Game Five against San Francisco, but only because it was the playoffs. If he gets that in July, he could well be on the DL.

The remedy for all of this is an injection of youth. GM Ruben Amaro might have to sacrifice some of the team’s legendary chemistry in order to find a younger player (or two) capable of producing some big numbers at the plate. And if Lidge and/or Contreras can’t get back in the ‘pen, there might be a need for help there, too. Even if Amaro has to make some changes – drastic changes – he does have one thing on his side as the Phillies try to get used to some new additions.

Time. It’s a great ally – unless you’re already old.

• If the Flyers are going to insist on playing such awful defense and letting the Bruins skate unimpeded toward the goal, they can’t say a word about Brian Boucher, Sergei Bobrovsky, Bernie Parent or anybody else they put into goal. Either take the man or get ready for a short series.

• We will all wait patiently to see if the most recent Eagles draft crop will produce standouts or disappointments, but the early returns aren’t encouraging. The defensive line was neglected. First-rounder Danny Watkins has played football for four years and turns 27 this November. Second-round safety Jaiquawn Jarrett is small but slow. And the Birds spent a fourth-rounder on a kicker. Hmmm. Let’s hope Andy Reid doesn’t have some explaining to do.

• Wasn’t the football season fun? We’ll never forget that great day of action, when players hoisted some weights, received playbooks and met with coaches. Can’t wait to see the NFL Films recap. It will be stirring, no doubt. And, now, back to the legal wrangling. Pathetic.