Much of the hand-wringing we've seen lately across various media has gone like this: the Phillies haven't improved since last year, so they're doomed. This is half right, but all wrong. It's probably true that they haven't improved -- in fact, they're probably worse. But that's nothing to be upset by. If anything, we should be happy about it.
Before getting to why, let's first recognize that expecting a 102-win team to improve is kind of unrealistic and unfair. How much better could they have gotten?
Of course, the inevitable counterargument is, "So what if they won 102 games? They weren't good enough when it mattered, and they haven't fixed that!" But just because the Phils lost to St. Louis doesn't mean they had some sort of fatal flaw that required fixing. In baseball, anyone can win or lose any postseason series. So the Division Series loss isn't a proper baseline. It was just a semi-random event that could easily have gone the other way even if replayed with the exact same personnel.
So, fine, the Phillies didn't "need" to improve. But how could it be a good thing that they didn't? Wouldn't it at least have been nice if they had? Not necessarily, and here's why. For nearly every action taken to acquire players, there is a somewhat-close-to-equal and opposite reaction. Acquisitions have costs as well as benefits. In trades, you give up value to get value. In free agent signings, you spend money that otherwise could be allocated elsewhere. There are no (systematic) free lunches.
Now, there are market inefficiencies, and if you have an extraordinarily smart GM, he may be able to exploit them with some regularity, and that can give you an edge. But market inefficiencies aren't magic. Being smart can improve the long-term yield on your investments, so to speak, but you're still going to have costs in your cost-benefit analyses. More importantly, you can't create market inefficiencies -- you can only react to them. It's great if your GM is smart enough to recognize them when they arise, but "fix your team through exploiting inefficiencies" is not a reasonable offseason plan -- it's a hope, not a policy. Formulating a policy means allocating resources among competing priorities.
The Phillies had two ways to improve this offseason: spend more, or make trades. But they already had the NL's largest budget last year, so it isn't realistic to argue that they should have spent significantly more. (And hardly anyone's arguing that, as far as I can tell.)
That leaves trades. To get value in a trade, you need to give up value. There were two types of commodities they could have given up: present talent and future talent. But trying to trade present talent to improve the team wouldn't have made sense as a plan. It would have just been a plus and a minus on the same balance sheet.
Which leaves us with trading away future talent, a/k/a prospects. That really might have enabled the 2012 Phillies to be better than the 2011 Phillies. But not without cost. The costs just would have been delayed, like a ticking time bomb. Is that really what anyone wants? Strengthening the 2012 Phillies by weakening the 2015, 2016, and 2017 Phillies? Doesn't it make more sense to let a 102-win team get a little worse, than to hurt future teams whose ability to contend is still hanging in the balance?
If you think about it, the only way you can systematically improve an organization is through the draft and other amateur signings. That's the only time when you can plan to have an influx of talent without a corresponding outflow of costs. All other transactions just move resources from one place to another place -- mainly, from the future to the present or from the present to the future. If the Phillies decided, this winter, not to improve their current team at the expense of their future teams, then that was reasonable. There may be reasons to criticize choices they made in the past that are affecting them now, or long-term policies they're following now that may harm them down the road. But the basic contours of the 2012 team's fate were set long before the 2011-12 offseason.