Time flies after you accumulate four aces.

It has been less than two years since the signing of Cliff Lee triggered a citywide celebration and made the Phillies the favorites to win the 2011 World Series.

The quartet of Lee, Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, and Roy Oswalt looked unbeatable on paper and initially exceeded expectations. With rookie Vance Worley serving as the surrogate fourth ace in place of the oft-injured Oswalt a year ago, the Phillies won a franchise-record 102 games.

That alone tells you there was nothing wrong with general manager Ruben Amaro Jr.'s plan to compile as many good starting pitchers as possible. It also tells you that once you get to the postseason, anything can happen, but the Phillies already knew that. They were aware they were not the best team in baseball in 2008, the year they were crowned as the best team in baseball.

It should concern Amaro and the rest of the Phillies' decision-makers that the pitching plan of 2011 is little more than dust in the wind as the 2012 season draws to an unfulfilling conclusion, which is pretty much a fait accompli after Sunday's 2-1 loss to the Atlanta Braves.

Oswalt is long gone, and the Phillies proved wise by first declining his option and then refusing to re-sign him even at a discounted rate. Worley had a chance to be the actual fourth ace this season, but a bone chip floating around in his right arm prevented that from happening.

Halladay wasn't right from the day the Phillies started spring training, and the aching sensation in his right shoulder grew progressively worse until he required a trip to the disabled list after a late May start in St. Louis.

The ace of a staff filled with aces a year ago returned to the rotation in mid-July, but he rarely pitched in a Halladay-esque manner. After the Atlanta Braves rocked Halladay for seven runs in less than two innings Saturday, the pitcher said a doctor's visit Friday had revealed shoulder spasms.

More medical examinations of Halladay's shoulder are forthcoming. Regardless of the outcome, the Phillies can only be confident that two of the original four aces still will be pitching the way they were capable of throwing at the start of the 2011 season.

Lee, after a star-crossed first half of the season, has returned to ace-like form in the second half, going 5-3 with a 2.42 ERA in 14 starts. With his strong, eight-inning effort in Sunday's loss, he has strung together eight consecutive quality starts, posting a 1.56 ERA in those games.

Hamels, of course, has been the true ace of the staff from start to finish this season. Every team in baseball would be happy with a one-two punch of Hamels and Lee, but without a healthy Halladay, the Phillies' rotation likely would head into next season as the third best in its own division behind Atlanta and Washington.

"Our top three starters, definitely we need those, without a doubt," manager Charlie Manuel said.

The Phillies can be sure Halladay will do everything he can in the offseason to regain the form that has made him one of the game's elite pitchers over the last decade.

"I know what kind of worker he is, and I know what kind of competitor he is," Lee said. "He definitely is not going to give up. It's just been one of those years, not only for him, but this team in general. A lot of guys individually, things just haven't gone the way they expect.

"It's going to challenge a lot of guys going into this offseason to make them work harder to come back and prove that's not who they are and to show who the real version of them is. I expect Roy to definitely be that. He's the hardest-working pitcher I've ever been around."

Trying, however, is not always accompanied by achieving, even when you are the hardest-working man in baseball.

So the question is this: In addition to offensive help in the outfield and at least one quality veteran reliever, do the Phillies need to add a starting pitcher this offseason?

The answer depends on how the Phillies answer a long series of questions: Do they trust Kyle Kendrick? Do they think Worley will bounce back? Is Tyler Cloyd good enough to fill the sixth-starter role that Kendrick handled so well in the recent past? Do the Phillies think that one of their young pitching prospects, such as Jonathan Pettibone, Trevor May, or Ethan Martin, will be ready next season? Can they afford to wait until the trade deadline to add a starting pitcher?

If Amaro and the Phillies decide in the offseason that they need another starter, they will have a decent class of free agents from which to choose, with Zack Greinke, Kyle Lohse, and Jake Peavy among the first tier. The second tier includes Hiroki Kuroda, Shaun Marcum, Edwin Jackson, and Anibal Sanchez.

Just the thought that the Phillies might have to consider adding a starting pitcher tells you how fast time flies after you put together a rotation with four aces.