No. 7 Phillies: 24th in a series counting down to spring training. Next: Tigers.
Last memory of the 2011 Phillies?
In clubhouse parlance, a sniper got him.
That's what players say when someone trips or collapses in mid-stride, seemingly without cause. There was a reason for this, however, and it was a ruptured Achilles tendon.
Unfortunately for baseball's best starting rotation, the Howard tumble and collapse provides a perfect analogy for the Phillies.
They have been the most successful NL franchise for five years now, not only winning consecutive East titles but increasing their total of regular-season victories every season since 2006. It's an impressive progression — 85, 89, 92, 93, 97 and 102.
For that to continue in 2012, that number has to climb to 103, with 108 in the picture. The presence of Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Vance Worley, along with the addition of $50 million-closer Jonathan Papelbon, suggests it could happen. But it won't.
The Phillies have a fatal flaw, and there is no cure in sight. Their lineup has become one of the oldest in the majors, and it no longer is the huge advantage against contenders that it once was. And did I mention — it's old.
When the Phillies traded for Astros veteran Hunter Pence last July, they gave themselves one position secured by a player in his 20s. He will turn 29 in April. The core guys in the lineup: Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins are 33, 33 and 32, respectively. Shane Victorino, a fresh face not long ago, is 31, catcher Carlos Ruiz is 33 and Placido Polanco is 36.
When the Phillies were playing in back-to-back World Series in 2008-09, they were billed as an NL team with an American League lineup. But that's not true anymore, not with Utley (decreasing OPS each of last four years), Howard (OPS down three of four years) and Rollins (OPS down three of four years) profiling as post-prime players, and no young hitters stepping in to balance the equation.
Run production became a front-and-center issue for manager Charlie Manuel last season when the Phillies averaged 4.4 runs to rank seventh in the NL. But this was the likely result of a trend that really started in the second half of 2009 when the Phillies were headed for a World Series loss to the Yankees.
The Phillies led the NL in scoring in 2009, but they scored more than half a run less in the second half of that season than early on, when they had the hammer down. But the swagger isn't gone from Philadelphia fans, who still think they're watching a team full of bullies.
With Domonic Brown failing to claim the Jayson Werth vacancy, the Phillies haven't successfully integrated a player under 25 into their lineup since Utley replaced Polanco as the second baseman in August 2004. General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. made a philosophy-revealing decision earlier this winter, declining to let Rollins leave via free agency, which would have opened a spot for 22-year-old Freddy Galvis, arguably the best defensive shortstop in the minors.
Rollins is a middle-of-the-pack defender, and he isn't likely to improve over the course of his three-year, $33-million deal. But Amaro wasn't ready to face the future without his leadoff man, so he blocked Galvis. Brown appears headed back to Triple-A for another season, with John Mayberry Jr. and newcomers Juan Pierre and Laynce Nix competing to replace Raul Ibanez in left field.
Other than Brown, there are no potentially dynamic hitters closing in on spots with the Phillies. The farm system is longer on pitchers than hitters. These aren't the 2010 Giants, who won a World Series almost strictly on the strength of their 1-2-3 starters and closer, but they aren't nearly as scary of an opponent as when they won the 2008 Series.
•The Phillies are tied with the Yankees for most victories the last four seasons with 384. That's 15 more than the Red Sox, 16 more than the Rays, and 21more than the Angels.
•The Phillies have lost three of their last four postseason series. They have averaged only 3.9 runs in the playoffs the last two years.
•Keeping Hamels beyond 2012 will be difficult. A prospective free agent, he's in line for a nine-figure contract that would pay him more than $20 million per season. The Phillies already are obligated to pay Halladay and Lee a combined $45 million in 2013 and '14 (assuming Halladay's '14 options vests or is picked up).
•Galvis, a switch hitter, did not make a strong case for himself in Venezuelan winter ball. He hit .249 for Zulia, failing to homer in 177 at-bats.
•Ryne Sandberg has become the Phillies' manager in waiting. He's ticketed for Triple-A again this season and probably will have to wait at least a couple of more years, however. Manuel, 68, signed an extension last May that runs through 2013.