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Could Phillies be headed for Astros-like decline after 2013?

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Nearly every competent major sports franchise goes through what the Philadelphia Phillies are experiencing right now: the transition period.

 

You know, when the best days of a team’s particular era are pretty much behind you, but there might be just enough steam left in the engine to give it one more run.

 

Yes, the Phillies are at that stage. Aging veterans combined with the emergence of the Nationals and Braves in the NL East make the former perennial division favorites a lesser commodity than they were just two years ago when they won a franchise record 102 games.

 

Although the Phillies have a World Series title to show for their half a decade run of dominance in the NL East, they need to be very careful not to tread in the same waters as the team who gave them likes of Brad Lidge, Roy Oswalt and Hunter Pence.

 

That’s right. I’m talking about Ruben Amaro Jr’s favorite trading partner, the Houston Astros.

Believe it or not, the ‘Stros made more post seasons from 1997 to 2005 than the Phillies have during their run (six to the Phillies’ five). However, after their World Series appearance in 2005 which saw them get swept by the Chicago White Sox, Houston began a sharp decline which saw the club lose 106 and 107 games in 2011 and 2012, respectively. And with their recent move to the American League, it’s not a stretch to say this pattern won’t continue for a few more years.

 

Although the Astros eventually started the rebuilding process by trading veterans Oswalt, Pence, Lance Berkman, Michael Bourn, Carlos Lee and Wandy Rodriguez, many insiders feel those moves should have been made long before they actually happened. Two years ago, Houston’s farm system was ranked as one of the worst in baseball, so the organization set out to restock it.

 

The Phillies’ farm system isn’t depleted, but after years of blockbuster trades, something had to give. ESPN recently ranked the Phillies’ system 27th out of 30 major league teams.  

 

Yes it’s kind of hard to imagine, but could the Phillies be headed down the same path as the Astros?  A team no longer a World Series contender who didn’t know when to let go of aging players to start rebuilding for the future? Just take a look at some of the Phillies veterans, and how realistic it could be to see most of them gone very soon with nobody in their system to adequately replace them. 

Photo: Kathy Willen/AP

 

Chase Utley- Utley has started 2013 on an absolute tear. This is encouraging on many fronts as well as discouraging. It would be easier than hard to let Utley walk after this season if he showed declining skills that made it apparent he can’t play at an All-Star level anymore. Either way, it’s going to be harder to let one of the most popular Phillies in club history walk away if he shows he still has some good years left in him and can stay healthy. With Freddy Galvis waiting in the wings, this will also be another tough choice for Ruben Amaro to make. 

 

Roy Halladay- Halladay has to throw at least 225 innings this season for his $20 million option to kick in for 2014. If he continues throwing the way he did after his first start however, it doesn’t seem likely he’s going to be headed down that road.

 

Trust me, writing this is not fun, but have you even seen a worse nine strikeout game from a pitcher than Halladay’s 3 1/3 inning effort last week? Yes, nine out of the 10 outs he recorded were whiffs, but let’s not forget about the .857 batting average of the Braves hitters who didn’t strike out. It may very well be that Halladay is still trying to grasp command of finesse pitches, but with the Phillies trying to stay relevant in the NL East, how long will it take before he can figure this out?  Halladay can fume at Erik Kratz, Rich Dubee and anyone else in that Phillies dugout as much as he wants. But the bottom line is that we might be seeing the end of a remarkable career and we’re all having a hard time accepting it- including Roy Halladay himself.

 

Carlos Ruiz- Chooch carried the Phillies’ offense for most of their forgettable 2012 season, but how much of this had to do with the amphetamines he was using? How he performs upon the return from his suspension is key for this Phillies team in 2013. Ruiz’s contract expires after this season. He’ll be 35 in 2014, but the Phillies’ veteran pitching staff swears by him. With Tommy Joseph not quite ready for the big leagues yet, what does Ruben Amaro do?

 

Michael Young- It’s still early, but Young has gotten off to a slow start and at times has looked shaky in the field. He’ll be 37 in October, and with Cody Asche being promoted to Triple-A after a strong spring, Young will probably take his place as the Mark Lewis of this decade for the Phillies no matter how he performs this season.

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Other aging players:

 

Cliff Lee- Lee is in the third year of his five-year deal. He’ll be 35 in August. Could the Phillies eventually move Lee if they are out of playoff contention? 

Jimmy Rollins photo: Getty Images

 

Jimmy Rollins- Rollins is in the second year of a three-year deal worth $33 million with a vesting option for a fourth year. Could the Phillies one day look to turn the page and move Rollins to a contender? At this stage, it’s really hard to see Rollins wearing anything but a Phillies uniform in his career, but Michael Jordan was once a Wizard, so anything goes. 

 

Jonathan Papelbon- Papelbon’s $50 million contract is a hefty one. Although he was the right choice at the time, it might get to the point where a contender could use his services down the line. 

Ryan Howard- This will be the toughest contract to move if the Phillies ever felt the need to do so. Howard is owed $105 million through 2017.

While most of the above players could possibly be traded for prospects in the near future, keep in mind that it’s always a dicey move to deal for unproven players. Phillippe Aumont is the only prospect from the Cliff Lee trade to Seattle that seems to have any big league potential. Kyle Drabek, once a top prospect for the Phillies who was involved in the Roy Halladay trade, has had two Tommy John surgeries.

The same for Carlos Carrasco, once ranked as the top prospect in the Phillies organization who the team traded to Cleveland for Lee in 2009. And why we’re on the subject of Tommy John, remember Josh Outman, who the Phillies traded to Oakland for Joe Blanton in 2008? Yep. Him too. Jonathan Singleton, whom the Phillies traded for Pence, recently failed his second drug test. Out of all the prospects the Phillies traded over the last five years (and there have been many), only Travis d’Arnaud (also part of the Halladay deal but now a member of the Mets organization) is generating the most buzz.

 It’s been a rough start to the season, but hopefully this Phillies team can give us one more glorious World Series run before some REAL decisions need to be made for the future of this franchise.

 

Contact Joe Vallee at jvallee@philly2philly.com

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Utley photo: Kathy Willens/AP

Rollins photo: Getty Images