After trading outfielders Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence, Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. admitted the team might not be as good as it was before the trades. By freeing up salary and acquiring prospects, though, Amaro hopes the Phillies will be a better team down the road.
“Down the road,” however, can’t be too far down the road. Starting pitchers Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee in their mid-30s. With the exception of the outfield positions vacated by Pence and Victorino, all of the Phillies’ everyday starters are at least 32 year old. If we include the bench and new starters, only outfielders John Mayberry Jr. and Domonic Brown, recalled after the Pence and Victorino trades, are under 30. The window of opportunity for the current group clearly isn’t going to be open much longer.
There aren’t going to be many more opportunities for the core of this team, which is why this season was a wasted opportunity. People can point to injuries as the cause of the Phillies’ downfall, but I would argue that the biggest problem was their failure to prepare for those injuries.
The injury to Roy Halladay wasn’t expected, but the Phillies knew they would likely be without Ryan Howard at the start of this season since he ruptured his Achilles tendon last October. They knew for certain that Howard would miss a significant chunk of this season after he suffered his infamous non-setback during spring training.
The Phillies may not have known that Utley would miss so much time until he was experienced additional knee problems early in spring training. But that doesn’t mean that Utley’s knee problems were a surprise. He has chondromalacia, which is a deterioration of the meniscus cartilage under the kneecap. A player can attempt to manage the situation, but it doesn’t cure the condition.
The Phillies never should have expected Utley to play the entire season. Even if they did, they knew fairly early in spring training that he would miss significant time at the start of the season. Yet it appears that the Phillies’ plan was to remain in contention and hope for the best when Howard and Utley returned.
Before the season, I worried that the Phillies were acting as if they could tread water until Utley and Howard return to rescue them. My recommendation was that the Phillies plan for a worst-case scenario. Plan as if Utley and Howard aren’t coming back as early as the Phillies hoped. Plan as if they won’t come back at full capacity.
Instead, the Phillies kept waiting and waiting and waiting. They were content to hang around .500. They didn’t bolster their struggling bullpen. They didn’t use the offseason to acquire players with better approaches at the plate and good defensive skills. They didn’t have a proven long-term solution to fill in at first base or third base (Freddy Galvis was ready to play second base).
The message from the front office was clear: we’ll be OK when Howard and Utley return. There was no sense of urgency.
For long stretches, the Phillies had difficulty scoring runs. They also consistently gave teams extra outs, either through errors or defensive miscues that were scored as hits. When they managed to take a lead, the bullpen, with the exception of closer Jonathan Papelbon, could be counted upon to give the lead away.
When you are missing players such as Howard and Utley from your lineup, it’s more difficult to overcome defensive mistakes and bullpen deficiencies. Knowing that Howard was going to miss the start of the season and after becoming aware that the same was true of Utley, the Phillies should have taken steps to improve the bullpen and defense before the season started.
If the Phillies had improved their bullpen, defense and situational hitting, would they have made the playoffs? I don’t know. But I do know that by failing to prepare for a worst-case scenario, the Phillies made it more likely that a worst-case scenario would occur.
Barring a miracle, the Phillies will play out the string for the next two months. Their performance is not completely meaningless, especially for players such as Brown, but their record during August and September is virtually meaningless.
Although a good finish is preferable to withering away in disgrace, nobody should proclaim that a late run is a positive sign for next season. A strong finish will mean as much as the Eagles’ four-game winning streak at the end of last season. Nothing.
The Phillies might not have many opportunities left to win with their current core of aging stars. That’s why it is such a shame that they wasted this season.
As August begins, this season is already over. Let’s hope the Phillies’ successful run isn’t over as well.