This Is the Phillies Last Hurrah

Enjoy the wins this year, because 2013 isn't going to be good for baseball in Philadelphia.

The conventional wisdom regarding 2012 National League supremacy holds that the significant talent drain that has been taking place the past couple years has weakened the Senior Circuit to the point where even if the Phillies have to field a lineup that includes enough MLB senior citizens to force a change in the start of home games to 5 p.m., they still have enough to reach the World Series.

That’s probably true, what with the Cardinals and Brewers weakened by the defections of Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder to DH Land, the Giants still figuring out how to score more than two runs a game, and the Marlins poised to become the baseball equivalent of an MTV reality series train wreck. The Phils are the favorites.

Enjoy it, folks, because this is the last hurrah for this bunch. The Phillies could well reach the Series this year–provided they make some pretty drastic offensive personality changes. But thanks to the team’s age, contract situation and dearth of promising young talent on the horizon, the future appears hazy, at best.

Using the “who else?” argument isn’t the best way to convince people that a certain team is a cinch to take the title, especially since no one expected the Giants and the Cardinals to win the National League the past two seasons. A 162-game baseball season is the very definition of unpredictability, and even the most talented teams can struggle to play six months of winning ball. Factor in that MLB commissioner Bud Sellout refuses to retire (at $22 million per, why should he?) and therefore feels compelled to prove his value by doing things like adding another wild-card team to the playoff tournament, and you have an even more erratic climate.

With five NL teams eligible for the post-season, and the Pirates, Astros, Mets, Padres and Cubs all but eliminated already, the Phillies have a 45% chance of reaching the post-season before a pitch is even thrown in anger or Jim Thome pulls a hammy trying to leg out a grounder. Toss in the fact that the Dodgers remain something of a mess, and the Nationals aren’t ready yet, and the Phils’ odds of post-season participation become better than 50-50. In other words, if you bought a 16-game plan over the winter, you should see playoff action. (Which shouldn’t be confused with what Phils fans watched last October.)

Since the object of the game is to reach the playoffs, all of this is good news for the Phillies. But standing tall in shallow water does not make one a leviathan. If the Phillies win the NL East because the Mets stink, the Nats are young, the Braves lack pop and Ozzie Guillen is crazy, don’t be fooled. The high times won’t last long if this organization continues its current path.

The Phillies have $99 million committed to seven players for 2013, provided they pick up the $5 million option on catcher Carlos Ruiz, a virtual no-brainer. Shane Victorino and Cole Hamels are free agents after the 2012 season, while outfielder Hunter Pence is arbitration eligible in 2013 and likely to command more than the $10.4 mil he’s earning this year. Re-signing all three of those cornerstone players would likely cost the Phillies about $45 million more, bringing the total for 10 players to $144 million. The money isn’t the problem. Citizens Bank Park remains the ultimate cash register. The problem is the team’s age and diminishing skill level.

As I pointed out last week, Chase Utley is destined to finish his career as a slap-hitting number two hitter–when he can get on the field. Jimmy Rollins is in the twilight of a fine career. The Phils will need a new third baseman, and it’s unlikely the menagerie of players they trot out to left this year (John Mayberry, Jr., Juan Pierre, Domonic Brown, Laynce Nix, Greg Luzinski) has any long-term prospects. Jonathan Papelbon looks good in the closer’s spot, but the rest of the bullpen has more arm problems than an arthritic octopus. The one guy who seems healthy, Chad Qualls, has a robust career ERA of 11.12 at Citizens Bank Park.

It would have been encouraging to see the Phils begin to transform some of their problem areas during the past off-season, but the team chose to stay the course and take advantage of the marketability of its core. Expect another season of sellouts, and thanks to the shaky NL competition, likely a sixth-straight NL East title. Post-season success, however, will depend on whether the team spends the 2012 season practicing the lost art of plate discipline and can score runs without the long ball, which won’t be in abundance. The Phillies should make the playoffs, and that’s the key. You can’t win if you aren’t in.

From 2003-06 the Phillies built gradually toward their current run of success. They made good personnel decisions–for the most part–spent freely to improve the roster and stayed true to a core group that has provided substantial prosperity. But that loyalty has a price. The Phils are wounded and aging, and they appear to have little flexibility to improve their problem areas, unless they want to push past the luxury tax threshold, something they have opposed adamantly.

Since pro sports are about the here and now, Phillies fans should look forward to an interesting and most likely thrilling season. Savor 2012, because the future may not be so bright.

Oh, and thank the baseball gods the Phils are not in the American League. That would be big trouble.


  • Stop criticizing Kentucky coach John Calipari for recruiting players who stay only one year on campus before heading to the NBA. He didn’t make the stupid rule that mandates players must wait a season before playing professionally. All he does is chase talent and bring it to Lexington. If players choose to leave after six months, he just finds new standouts. That’s called successful management, so stop ripping him for winning. Instead, start demanding a change to the broken system.
  • Here’s a note to everyone who trashed me for saying the Sixers weren’t as good as their fast start indicated: How’s seventh place in the Eastern Conference playoff race and a first-round meeting with Miami looking? The Sixers play hard, are excellent defenders and may well post the lowest turnover rate in NBA history, but they lack scorers who can create their own shots, and they rarely get to the foul line. Screens and movement on offense may keep the court at the local health club, but in the NBA, it isn’t enough. President Rod Thorn’s off-season challenge is to find someone capable of scoring without the benefit of set plays.
  • It doesn’t matter who has home-ice advantage when the Flyers and Penguins meet in the first round of the playoffs, because the series is going to be great. Sunday’s Brawl at the Consol had a little bit of everything, and imagining seven games of that action can stir even casual fans’ passions. Next Saturday’s rematch should be juicy, but a fortnight of hostilities could be epic.