One of the nice things about following the Phillies from afar is that I'm insulated from much of the day-to-day tsuris that overtakes the team when they're facing an adverse wind, as has been the case this spring. Mediated by distance--and the fact that my nearest NL club is the Mets, whose problems are to those of the Phillies as the Empire State Building is to the Betsy Ross House--it seems to me that the garment-rending of the fanbase, not to mention the schadenfreude of the baseball analysis community, is much better directed at the years beyond 2012 than the season set to begin this week. With that in mind, let's consider the club's outlook, first for 2012 and then in the longer term.
To be sure, there are valid reasons for concern. The organization’s depth isn’t what it was: if any of the big three pitchers get hurt, and Chase Utley and Ryan Howard miss more time than expected, or another important regular—Carlos Ruiz, Shane Victorino, Hunter Pence—misses serious time, they’re in huge trouble. In-house replacements simply aren’t there, and for the first time during the current run, they might not have either the prospect depth or payroll flexibility to make a major in-season upgrade. To make matters worse, they’ll be facing the strongest in-division competition since 2005, when every team in the NL East finished .500 or better. The Phillies have put up a collective 67-41 record against the Braves, Marlins and Nationals over the last two seasons, good for a combined .620 winning percentage; that level of success this year seems unlikely.
That said, they still bring a better hand into the 2012 campaign than any of those rivals. The success formula is pretty straightforward: stay at or near the top of the division on the strength of aces Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels and a bullpen anchored by Jonathan Papelbon until Utley and Howard return. Minimize risk of additional injuries to traditionally fragile veterans Placido Polanco and Jimmy Rollins through the judicious use of a bench that seems more versatile and offensively potent than has been the case in the recent past. Count on still-in-their-prime outfielders Pence and Victorino to carry the offensive load, and hope that Rollins, Ruiz, and John Mayberry, Jr. all can at least approach their 2011 offensive performance. As plans go, it beats the hell out of counting on Omar Daal, Travis Lee, Terry Adams and Jose Mesa—which, lest we forget, was the Phillies’ smudged-up blueprint for glory a scant ten years ago.
But here's the bad news: if the downfall doesn’t come in 2012, it’s pretty sure to arrive in the year or two following.
The combination of the Phillies’ core aging while the key players of the Braves, Marlins and Nationals approach their peaks makes it all but inevitable that the run of division crowns will end well short of the Braves' unfathomable 11 straight NL East titles. The question is what happens on and after that October day, in 2012 or 2013 or 2014, when they find themselves sitting home as the playoffs begin. It’s sobering enough that the Phillies already have more than $100 million committed for 2013 to players who will be 32 or older. That there aren’t obvious reinforcements coming over the horizon makes it worse. Near-term decisions on whether or not to give big contracts to pending free agents Hamels and Victorino as well as Pence, who’s up after 2013, could strengthen the team for the first year or two of those deals, while further raising the odds that the vast majority of the budget will be committed to declining players for a long, long stretch. At best, all those expensive veterans will "earn" their contracts, but can’t be expected to outperform them.
And that’s the key. The Phillies have enjoyed this golden age on the backs of players who delivered value far in excess of their compensation. The single biggest reason the team won the title in 2008 was the over-performance, compared to what they earned, of young homegrown stars Utley, Howard, Hamels, Rollins and Ryan Madson, plus cheap acquisitions Victorino, Jayson Werth, and J.C. Romero. Some of the veterans, like Pat Burrell and Jamie Moyer, pretty much were worth what they made; others, like Adam Eaton and Geoff Jenkins, were mammoth disappointments redeemed only by cheap stars. Even in 2011, by which time the homegrown stars were making big money and imports like Halladay and Lee were the headliners, the likes of Vance Worley and Antonio Bastardo and Michael Stutes and Mayberry were giving Porsche performance at Hyundai prices.
Who will do that for the 2012-14 Phillies? There’s a reasonable hope Freddy Galvis will outperform the departed inexplicable fan favorite Wilson Valdez; there are about five young relief pitchers in the top levels of the system who seem like good bets to deliver excess value; and there’s Domonic Brown, who in two short years has gone from savior-designate to whipping boy. Galvis and the likes of Phillippe Aumont might be serviceable for the major-league minimum; they won’t be Ryan Howard in 2006, winning an MVP while making the salary of a Wall Street middle manager. Much as it might annoy the knuckle-draggers, Brown is the only one who even might approach that sort of absurd excess value. His getting back on track might or might not matter for the 2012 Phillies, but it would be an enormously big deal for the 2014 club.
That the Phillies are now the big-budget behemoth of the NL, and can anticipate a very lucrative new TV deal well before the end of the Howard contract, will help--but it won't save them. If and when the team dips below 80 wins, the sellout (or "sellout") streak will end, and revenues will drop. By then, the just-sold Dodgers probably will be the financial powerhouse of the senior circuit, and even the Mets might have fully dug out of their Madoff hole and entered a virtuous cycle of the sort the Phils have enjoyed: team improves, stadium fills, payroll rises, team improves. The Cubs eventually will get there as well; by 2015 it's not at all unreasonable to assume that the three teams with baseline financial circumstances better than those of the Phillies will be firing on more, if not all, cylinders--which hasn't been the case since at least 2008, when the Phils still benefitted from the below-market contracts of their homegrown stars.
I don't want to be overly gloomy. The truly elite players really do age more gracefully, and it's not at all unreasonable to project Halladay, Lee, and Hamels continuing to put up superior numbers through mid-decade and beyond. Their presence also will ease the development of the young arms that remain an organizational strength: Trevor May, Jesse Biddle, Brody Colvin and so on. By then, though, the Phils will need serious internal reinforcements on the positional side: if Brown and Galvis really can emerge, and if the likes of Larry Greene, Roman Quinn and Carlos Tocci emerge as legit big-leaguers, then the Phils' coming down period might be no more than a short evening before a bright new dawn.