By DAVID MURPHY
Maybe the Mayans were wrong. Or maybe they were Phillies fans. Because right now, it is looking like Dec. 21, 2012 will go down in history as the last day any realist could consider them a sure-fire World Series contender. That was the day that the last of the everyday outfielders vanished from the free agent market, as Nick Swisher went from the Yankees to the Indians on a four-year, $56 million contract.
Maybe something changes in between now and the start of spring training. Maybe Ruben Amaro Jr. finds a way to swing a trade that will address one of the glaring needs that still exists on his roster at the midway point of the offseason. But the odds of that are long. The Phillies have already parted with two of their top trade chips in Vance Worley and Trevor May, and they did not exactly have a large stack to begin with. The trades that were supposed to make them contenders were made long before this offseason. The prospects that other teams covet are already gone. Anthony Gose, Jonathan Singleton, Jarred Cosart, Domingo Santana -- those are the types of players who end up being dealt for the Justin Uptons of the world. But the Phillies dealt them for two full seasons and two half seasons of Roy Oswalt and Hunter Pence.
Now, after choosing to sit out a wildly expensive and under talented free agent position player market, Amaro and Co. find themselves with a personnel structure that looks remarkable similar to the way it did on Opening Day last season. Go position by position and ask yourself: are the Phillies in any better position to contend than they were one year ago today?
The trend of replacing departing players with lesser parts appears to have continued with Ben Revere stepping in for Shane Victorino and John Lannan stepping in for Vance Worley and some combination of Domonic Brown and a right-handed-bat-to-be-named-later stepping in for Hunter Pence, who previously stepped in for Jayson Werth. Revere is younger than Victorino and has more potential, but you can not ignore the fact that Victorino finished the 2012 season, the worst as a big league regular, with an OPS 29 points higher than Revere. Much the same can be said for the situation in right field. And at the bottom of the rotation, the Phillies have managed to get older AND less talented.
The optimistic view is that, one year ago, Ryan Howard was still working his way back from surgery to repair a ruptured Achilles tendon. This year, though, he is working his way back from a season in which he hit just .219 with a .295 on base percentage, .423 slugging percentage and 11 home runs in 292 plate appearances. And a broken toe.
The Phillies are optimistic that, this year, Chase Utley will be healthy for a the whole season. Last year, though, they were saying the same thing.
Even if you do count the outlooks for Howard and Utley as improvements over last year at this time, you also must count the outlook for Roy Halladay as the opposite. The veteran ace will be 36 years old, and he will be coming off a season in which his velocity and command dipped, his ERA ballooned, and his shoulder was afflicted by a condition that was not addressed via offseason surgery.
That's not to say that Halladay will not return to the form he displayed in 2010 and 2011, going 40-16 with a 2.40 ERA in 484 1/3 innings. Nor is it to say that Howard won't return to the form he displayed in 2011, or that Utley won't miss the first two months of the season for the first time since 2010, or that Brown won't fulfill the potential that earned him recognition as one of the top prospects in the game in 2010, or that Darin Ruf won't continue hitting home runs at a Ruthian pace, or that newly-acquired veteran Michael Young won't bounce back from an abysmal 2011 while also proving he can handle the defensive responsibilities of an everyday third baseman, or that Lannan and Kyle Kendrick will prove to be just as adequate as Worley and Joe Blanton were at the start of last season.
But that does say that the Phillies are essentially in the same position they were last year, the outcome of their season predicated on a slew of breaks in their direction even before the inevitable regular season injuries had a chance to mount. The variables may have been different -- John Mayberry Jr., Laynce Nix, Worley, Placido Polanco -- but the questions were very much the same. If healthy, Mike Adams should be a huge improvement over the committee that manned the eighth inning last season. But he is also an aging reliever coming off surgery (although, admittedly, not as aging as Jose Contreras was at this time last year).
The potential is probably greater than it was last season. And there is a certain amount of excitement that comes with watching a trio of under-30 players like Ruf, Brown and Revere attempt to establish themselves as legitimate pieces of a franchise's future. Then again, this is a franchise that will have a payroll eclipsing $170 million. This is a franchise that has a lot of financial and emotional capital invested in perennial World Series contention. And while 2013 could prove to be the start of a new chapter in Phillies baseball, the roster as it stands right now does not preclude the chance of it being the expensive end of an old one.