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Fork in the Road

So the exhilirating, debilitating 2007 Phillies season breathed its last a bit before 1am Eastern Time Sunday morning, its expiration a tribute to how much of baseball is improbable chance. You likely couldn't have gotten odds that the highest-scoring team in the league would manage just eight runs in three games, or hit a collective .170. Or that J.C. Romero, virtually unhittable for three months through a mix of skill and good fortune, would suddenly surrender three incredibly well placed hits in succession. It all added up to the Rockies winning for the 18th time in 19 games, and advancing to an NLCS that I couldn't possibly be less interested in. (If there's any karmic justice to this, it's that TBS has a matchup for the NL pennant that's fully worthy of its production quality.)

Now the question is how the Phillies handle their success--and make no mistake about it, a division title represents a successful year. You might remember what happened after the last time the team reached the postseason: veteran GM Lee Thomas and his colleagues in the front office first assumed that their aging players would keep getting it done, then tried to patch emerging holes with other veterans, and didn't realize just how deep the hole was--that the 1993 pennant was the fluke, not the seasons of futility that came before and after it--until three years later.

The 2007 team seems better positioned for success going forward than the '93 club. Those guys were old, in baseball terms: Darren Daulton, Lenny Dykstra and John Kruk were on the wrong side of 30, with serious health concerns. Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard all will be under 30 next season, and none of them have had injuries likely to hamper them going forward. The '93 team had much better pitching, but Tommy Greene was never the same after that season and it took Curt Schilling three years to fully recover his form after throwing 235 innings that season. Cole Hamels might seem more fragile than Schilling, but he's also been handled much more gently.

Still, the team has serious shortcomings and vulnerabilities going forward, and how GM Pat Gillick and his colleagues approach their offseason work will play as large a role as any other factor in determining whether the Phils get another shot at October glory next year. The questions include:

  • How much can they expect from Jamie Moyer at age 45 and a hurting Tom Gordon at 40, or Adam Eaton in the second year of a deal that, right now, looks like an all-time bust?

  • Is Kyle Kendrick for real as a #3 or #4 starter, or should the team temper its expectations for the out-of-nowhere 23 year-old?

  • Who's a viable option for the bullpen? Ryan Madson almost certainly will be back, and Geoff Geary presumably gets another shot, and it sounds like Brett Myers will remain the closer--unfortunately, IMO. How much to resign Romero? Can Fabio Castro or Scott Mathieson or Francisco Rosario emerge as strikeout relievers?

  • What is Aaron Rowand worth to the Phillies? This one is a two-edged sword: it's unlikely that Rowand will be as good again as he was in 2007, letting him leave as a free agent not only threatens the positive clubhouse chemistry but forces the team to rely on some or all of Jayson Werth's health, Shane Victorino's durability and Michael Bourn's potential to start hitting the ball with authority--all questionable bets.

  • Does the team have an answer at third base? Wes Helms was a bust, though he'll be back under his two-year deal; Greg Dobbs exceeded expectations but is clearly limited; Abe Nunez is what he is, a good fielder and atrocious hitter. Do they share the job again? Go after a free agent like Mike Lowell or trade target like Joe Crede? Hope that Mike Costanzo or another farmhand comes on fast?

As the offseason unfolds, we'll consider these and other questions in much greater depth. But the mindset of the front office--how well they identify vulnerabilities and opportunities, how heavily they weight quantifiable and non-quantifiable factors, how much money they budget for different parts of the roster--probably will tell the tale. If they get it right, the odds are decent that we'll be going for the title again in a year's time. If they foul it up, we could face another long stretch in the desert of mediocrity.