It's been a rapid descent for the Phillies from the best team in the National League and perennial playoff participant to doorstop. This year was Philadelphia's worst since 2000, and it cost the formerly beloved Charlie Manuel his job.
Diagnosis: Premature Aging
It's fun to mock the Phillies' love of veterans and their general distrust of youth, but the only player on the Phillies older than 34 to get more than 50 plate appearances was Michael Young and the only one to pitch more than 20 innings was Roy Halladay. The problem is not just that the Phillies' core is old, it's that it's started to show its age incredibly fast. Ryan Howard suffered leg problems for the second straight year, only played 80 games, and showed dramatically reduced bat speed. Chase Utley missed 30 games with a ribcage injury. Jimmy Rollins, 34, hit just .252/.318/.348, the lowest OPS of his career. Carlos Ruiz lost a month to a second suspension for using banned stimulants, then lost another month to a hamstring injury, and had his worst offensive season since 2008. Their struggles forced the Phillies to turn to players like John Mayberry, Kevin Frandsen, Erik Kratz, and Freddy Galvis far more often than they should have and made it impossible to jettison Delmon Young for most of 2013.
Meanwhile, Halladay's disintegration, combined with the offseason trade for Ben Revere, left the Phillies severely short-staffed and forced them to give 33 starts to the combination of John Lannan (5.33 ERA), Tyler Cloyd (6.56 ERA), and Ethan Martin (6.08 ERA). The bullpen also failed utterly and completely, posting the second worst ERA in the National League (behind only the Rockies) and allowing the second-highest percentage of inherited runners to score.
Key Stat: $150,860,000
That's how much the Phillies paid their players to be the fourth-worst team in the National League. And the bad news is that the situation isn't improving. Roy Halladay and his $20 million salary is off the books, but a good deal of that savings will be eaten up by the raises in Ryan Howard, Cole Hamels, Mike Adams's contracts and arbitration raises to Antonio Bastardo, Ben Revere, and Kyle Kendrick. Plus, the Phils gave $8 million a year to both Marlon Byrd and Carlos Ruiz, so there's essentially no way they will get away with paying less for their club in 2014. Unless Ruben Amaro is willing to deal Cliff Lee and/or all budget restraints have been cast off, there isn't much room to further improve the club.
Breakout: Domonic Brown
Brown finally got an extended shot at the Phillies' outfield and delivered a strong offensive season built on tremendous power and a strong batting average. It was a vindication for prospect hawks who have been clamoring for Brown since he was rated the No. 4 prospect in the game by Baseball America. Amaro did everything in his power to stop the young outfielder, so much so that he admitted to retarding Brown's development.
Perhaps none of that matters now. Brown hit .272/.324/.494 with 27 home runs and led the Phillies in homers, runs, RBI, and slugging percentage. His game is not without weakness. He doesn't strike out much, but hasn't learned to let pitches in the strike zone go that he can't drive, and thus walked unintentionally just 35 times in 2013. His defense is also atrocious, even in an outfield corner, but he's more than vindicated his supporters and should be an important part of the retooling effort in Philly.
Breakdown: Roy Halladay
Five years after he retires, Roy Halladay will have a heck of an interesting Hall of Fame case thanks to his two Cy Young Awards, seven top-five Cy Young finishes, his post-season no-hitter, and a career WAR approaching 70. Watching him pitch in 2013, I found myself hoping that we could start that count now and not have our memories sullied by his performance going forward.
Yes, 2011 was probably the last classic Roy Halladay season we're going to get. One of the greatest pitchers of this generation is now reduced to floating 89 mile per hour beach balls at opposing hitters and his once impeccable control has vanished. Three years ago, he led perhaps the most talented pitching staff in baseball history. Last year, he was below replacement level, only threw 62 innings, and allowed 12 homers in 282 plate appearances. As a free agent he will be lucky to get a quarter of the $8 million Josh Johnson just got from the Padres.
There is some hope that Halladay will rebound at age 37, a year further removed from the shoulder problems that have robbed him of his effectiveness, but the odds are incredibly long; Johan Santana and maybe even Gavin Floyd have to be considered better bets at this point for teams looking for a buy-low starter.
Prescription: Bed Rest
If this were my team, Ruben Amaro and his stat-phobic front office would have been gone after last year's Delmon and Michael Young-fueled debacle, when it was clear the only idea they had was to push most of their chips in and pray for a lucky draw. But Amaro is still here, and he has decided to go all in, adding to the payroll and supplementing an old team with veterans, much as the Astros did from 2006-2010.
At this point, the only way out is to go forward and play 2014 with the core the club has on hand, and hope that Utley, Howard, Ruiz, Revere, and the pitching staff has a healthier and more effective 2014. That's where all the bed rest comes in. Players this old need to save their strength.
It's not the worst strategy, either. Revere and Brown still are young and effective. Rollins and Ruiz probably can't hit any worse than they did. Marlon Byrd, for all his faults, will be an upgrade over Delmon Young. And Amaro seems determined to bring in another reliever. So there's some natural bounce-back built into this roster.
For as much as the Phillies have been criticized for poor drafting and for dealing away all their prospects for Cliff Lee, Hunter Pence, and Roy Oswalt in recent years, they still have young players who could make a major impact in 2014. Cody Asche is going to get a chance to stick at third base. If he fails, Maikel Franco hit .320/.356/.569 with 31 homers between High-A and Double-A, is only 21 years old, and is right behind him. He could also slide in at first base should Howard be injured again. Jesse Biddle and (if his elbow is healthy) Cuban import Miguel Gonzalez both could be rotation mainstays by mid-season, Adam Morgan was a disappointment last year at Lehigh Valley, but still could win a rotation spot in spring training. With some good luck on a buy-low reclamation starter, maybe the Phillies can creep back into contention, at least for the wild card.
If they fail -- and let's be clear, they are likely to fail -- there really isn't a lot of value lost in trying. Lee will still fetch a great return if he's dealt this summer rather than this winter, and it's not as though Howard, Rollins, and Papelbon are tradable commodities as it is. That's the problem when you fall apart at a relatively young age: you still have a lot of life in you, but nobody really wants to share it with you anymore.