Clock ticking for Phillies' veteran core
High-priced 30-somethings must produce more after slow start
The slogan on the T-shirts worn by members of the Philadelphia Phillies as they navigate their way from clubhouse to lunch room or trainer's room or batting cage is "The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday" -- a motto borrowed from the Navy SEALs, but appropriate for a roster with an average age of 30.2 in a young man's game.
Whether the Phillies have too many yesterdays to win in the present tense is a matter still being sorted out, but suffice to say, they've endured a difficult start to the 2013 season. And the most difficult aspect of it all has been their inability, once again, to capitalize on "The Three Aces" concept.
The Phils are 5-13 in games started by Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay, but they are 7-3 in those started by Kyle Kendrick, John Lannan and Jonathan Pettibone. The counterintuitive nature of these numbers is a byproduct of the subpar starts to the season for Hamels and Halladay, with the 36-year-old Halladay's struggles and stuff an obvious point of long-term concern.
And then there's the offense, which has struggled to support those starters on the nights when they've lived up to their ace billing. The Phillies have been shut out four times in the past 15 games and rank 26th among the 30 Major League teams in scoring (3.57 runs per game), 25th in on-base percentage (.301) and 24th in slugging percentage (.378).
Sweeping the Mets in Queens last weekend was good for the soul, as was getting catcher Carlos Ruiz back from his 25-game suspension and adding Delmon Young to the active roster. But then the Phils got hammered in two games in Cleveland -- outscored, 20-2 -- and they enter their four-game home set against the Marlins at 12-16, already 5 1/2 games back of the Braves.
"They're on the fast train," Hamels said of the Braves. "We need to get on board just to stay with them. We have to take a serious tone. We have a lot of catching up to do."
Philadelphia's vast investments in Hamels, Lee and Halladay (combined salary this season: $65.5 million) and an aging infield (the Phillies are paying a combined $52.3 million this season to the 33-year-old Ryan Howard, 34-year-old Chase Utley, 34-year-old Jimmy Rollins and 36-year-old Michael Young) have caught up to the club in the sense that it's forced concessions elsewhere. Namely, an outfield concoction that largely hasn't produced at the plate (only the Marlins have a worse outfield OPS) and desperately needs Delmon Young's bat to outweigh his likely fielding foibles in right and Domonic Brown to come into his own.
"We're out of April now," Michael Young said. "We need to find a way to get better. Our team at full strength is a very talented group with a lot of experience that knows how to pound its way through the regular season and make noise in the postseason."
If things don't improve, the Phillies might make their noise in July, when Utley and the two Youngs, all pending free agents, could become trade candidates. Or senior vice president and general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. could really blow things up and entertain offers for Halladay, Lee, Rollins and closer Jonathan Papelbon (remember how well past trades for Lee, in particular, have gone for the Phils, Indians and Mariners, and you see that there are no guarantees in the swap market). If that sell-off scenario does come to pass, it's awfully difficult to envision Philadelphia extending Charlie Manuel, who is one of 10 big league managers with no contractual security beyond this season.
That all this is even a topic of discussion speaks to the difficulty of juggling the roster of a club that was once a juggernaut.
"It is super hard," Hamels said. "I don't envy any GM, especially on a big-market team, because you have to compete and you have to attract those big names or not let them leave. When you're not winning, you're always going to chase it until you win again and can breathe a little bit."
The Phillies have been chasing it ever since their 2008 World Series title, with Amaro going all-in on the multiple-aces idea. That began with the initial trade for Lee in midsummer '09. That year, they reached the World Series again, only to fall to the Yankees. The following year, after swapping Lee and adding Halladay, it was an National League Championship Series exit. Then, with Hamels, Lee, Halladay and Roy Oswalt all aboard, it was a frustrating first-round dismissal after a 102-win season proper.
Everything that's happened since has made the Phils look like a team more in need of a rebuild than a reload. Thus far in 2013, the flaws of a thrifty support system for a group of lavishly paid superstars -- many of whom are not yet performing to their career norms -- have shown.
"It becomes very hard when you have contracts like that," Hamels said. "You understand that careers will, at some point, head downhill, and you're hoping that it's not while the guys are getting the big contract. You never know. You can't predict the future and you don't have a crystal ball."
Right now, the crystal ball does not portend great things for the Phillies unless the aces can live up to their billing and the offense can adequately support them. Just because it didn't happen in April doesn't mean it won't happen as the weather warms and the bats awaken and Halladay gains a better understanding of how to make do with what he's got.
But the Phils realize, even at this still-early juncture of the season, that they don't have an overwhelming number of tomorrows to re-emerge as an elite team in 2013.
"I tell our guys," Manuel said, "every day you play, you get closer to the finish line. That's how much it counts."