When the Phillies won the World Series in 2008, it looked like they were set up for a long run of success. With a nucleus of Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Jayson Werth, Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino all 29 years of age or younger, the Phillies saw a window of five or six years in which they believed they could compete for multiple World Series titles.
And this was before they added aces Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee. The addition of two rotation-leaders to go with their own home-grown ace, Cole Hamels, figured to buy the Phillies an additional year or two of contention, even as Werth and Victorino moved on and the rest of the nucleus aged. After all, even by 2013, Howard, Utley and Rollins would still be just 33, 34 and 34, respectively, and hopefully finishing out their primes. Of course, in 2012 injuries derailed one of those contending years.
But in the 2013 of reality, even if everything goes right—meaning Utley and Howard return to health and become the best versions of themselves that could be expected of players near the end of their primes, and Halladay returns to being the durable workhorse ace he always was—it still may only be good enough for third place in the National League East.
One of the reasons Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. felt comfortable handing out huge contracts to three starting pitchers was that, in theory, no matter how his offensive stars aged, the Phillies would still have the advantage on most nights. It appears, however, that Amaro vastly underestimated the speed at which the Washington Nationals would work themselves into contention.
If Holliday and Lee return to being Cy Young candidates and Hamels remains one, the Phillies will in fact still have the best top three starters in the NL East, even with the Stephen Strasburg–Gio Gonzalez–Jordan Zimmermann trio looming 90 miles south, and definitely better than the Tim Hudson–Kris Medlen–Mike Minor rotation the Braves will trot out. But even if that happens, the gap is not as big as it once was, and it’s certainly not as big as the gap between the Phillies’ offense and the lineups of those two opponents.
It’s easy to point to the cyclical nature of sports as the explanation, and that certainly plays a factor here. In contrast to the aging Phillies, the Nationals feature a young nucleus, even younger than the one that got the Phillies a title. But all players age, so that’s to be expected. It’s what’s been done about it that’s been the problem for the Phillies.
The reason that 2008 team was successful—remember this is before the Phillies’ payroll skyrocketed—was that they got significant contributions from inexpensive players. Werth, Victorino and Hamels were all still early in their service calendars and thus were tremendous values. The Nationals and Braves are benefiting from that very situation right now.
Bryce Harper, Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa, Zimmermann, Drew Storen and Strasburg are all extremely cheap compared to their levels of production. None is past his first year of arbitration, and thus none of their salaries have been inflated by baseball’s salary structure.
The Braves have Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Minor and Medlen who are all still dirt cheap, and even new acquisition Justin Upton was signed to a team-friendly extension by the Diamondbacks that bought out his arbitration years.
As the Phillies nucleus has gotten older and more expensive, they have failed to replenish their roster with younger, less-expensive players. Their payroll has grown, but the price-per-win of the players they have kept and acquired has risen at a similar rate.
The Nationals showed everyone last year that they were ready to play with the Phillies, perhaps a year earlier than even they expected. The Braves’ young nucleus was aided by the unexpected emergence of Medlen as a potential ace just a year removed from Tommy John surgery. Now, the Braves’ acquisition of Upton to go with the offseason signing of brother B.J. gives them perhaps the most formidable outfield in the major leagues, and Freeman and shortstop Andrelton Simmons give them a young infield to work with, as well.
Meanwhile, the Phillies continue to ignore all advanced metrics, and even many scouting opinions, signing Delmon Young to play the outfield when they already had an in-house version of him in Darin Ruf who hasn’t yet proved to us that he’s a platoon player the way we’ve seen from Young over the years.
The Phillies still can be competitive this season, and their window hasn’t completely closed, but they’re no longer the only ones trying to climb through it, and a lot of things have to go right. The Nationals had another strong offseason, letting everyone know they’re not going anywhere, and the Braves’ acquisition of a second Upton this winter officially puts the Phillies on notice that their days of dominating the NL East could be all but over.