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No. 15 Phillies: Sunset on Utley-Howard-Halladay core puts Philly behind in NL East

Tim Brown
Yahoo Sports

Editor's note: Yahoo! Sports will examine the offseason of every MLB team before spring training begins in mid-February. Our series continues with the Philadelphia Phillies.

MLB Springboards: No. 30 Astros | No. 29 Marlins | No. 28 Mets | No. 27 Rockies | No. 26 Twins | No. 25 Pirates | No. 24 Indians | No. 23 Mariners | No. 22 Padres | No. 21 Cubs | No. 20 Brewers | No. 19 Red Sox | No. 18 White Sox | No. 17 Royals | No. 16 Orioles

2012 record: 81-81
Finish: Third, NL East
2012 final payroll: $169.7 million
Estimated 2013 opening day payroll: $158 million
Yahoo! Sports offseason rank: 15
Hashtags: #chooo…what? #kraaaaaatz #teamplatoon #DariDom #Nixberry #whatsupdoc #utleysknees #howardsOPS

OFFSEASON ACTION

There is a great challenge – some might say paradox – to Ruben Amaro Jr.'s professional pursuit these days, and that is to build a baseball team around a core he cannot be sure still exists.

Age, fragile bodies, and the price of stacking playoff teams upon playoff teams have steered the Phillies into that most uncomfortable of neighborhoods, the one where 102 wins become 81 and there's an unseaworthy boat in the side yard.

Injuries limited Ryan Howard to 71 games and Chase Utley to 83 in 2012. Carlos Ruiz played one game in August. Placido Polanco played 90 games. Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence were traded on July 31. Roy Halladay made 25 starts, his least since 2005, and nearly doubled his ERA from two prior seasons in Philadelphia. Cliff Lee won but six games (though through no fault of his own.) The team ERA in the eighth inning – often when attempting to get the ball to Jonathan Papelbon – was 4.67, its highest of any inning. (The Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves, to pick two teams that finished ahead of the Phillies in the division, posted ERA's of 3.22 and 2.61, respectively, in the eighth inning.)

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The string of five straight division titles ended last season for Howard, Utley and the Phillies. (AP)

There's more, but you get the idea. Payroll nudged $170 million, critical players either didn't or couldn't perform, and the hope for a sixth consecutive division title had been swamped by the middle of June. On the bright side, the Phillies were 44-31 in the second half, primarily because the pitching came around.

Along comes the offseason, and beyond that a season in which more than $100 million is tied up in Lee, Cole Hamels, Halladay, Howard and Utley. So, in spite of potential issues at the corner-outfield spots, Amaro passed on pricy options such as Josh Hamilton, B.J. Upton, Nick Swisher and Cody Ross.

Michael Bourn remains a free agent, but Amaro instead traded for Minnesota Twins outfielder Ben Revere, who will take over center for Victorino. He then signed Delmon Young into a crowded and flawed outfield. The inclusion of Vance Worley (along with prospect Trevor May) in the Revere deal meant Amaro had thinned the back of the rotation. Amaro therefore signed John Lannan, the former Washington Nationals left-hander who'd been pushed out of the rotation there.

[Related: Delmon Young expected to play RF for Phillies every day]

Amaro traded for veteran Michael Young to play third base, gambling that Young, at 36, still has something left on both sides of the ball. The Texas Rangers will pay $10 million of the $16 million due Young. Finally, perhaps, Amaro needed to fill the setup role. He signed Mike Adams to a two-year, $12 million contract. Adams had surgery in the fall to correct Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, a condition that caused pain and numbness for much of last season, when he had a 3.27 ERA and 1.395 WHIP.

REALITY CHECK

Ryan Howard is 33, is guaranteed $105 million over the next four years and his OPS has fallen in each of the past three seasons. Chase Utley is 34, is in the final year of a contract that will pay him $15 million, and over five seasons has seen his OPS fall from .976 to .793. Jimmy Rollins is 34. When Carlos Ruiz returns from his drug suspension, he will be 34. Roy Halladay will be 36 in May. Cliff Lee will be 35 before summer is out.

Players' primes are again fleeting. So the core Phillies who delivered five NL East titles, two World Series appearances and one parade, along with those Phillies brought in to extend a helluva half-decade, by appearances are giving way to the cruelties of time and circumstance. Those maladies reach up and grab Howard's Achilles, Utley's knees, Halladay's back and shoulder. They tug on an organization's depth, a fan base's expectation, an owner's wallet.

Given the same time and circumstance, but also the grace of a quiet construction, the Nationals rallied from 69 to 80 to, in their breakout '12, 98 wins. Want to know where the Phillies' 20 wins went last season? Look no further.

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Roy Halladay had his worst season as a Phillie last year. (Getty Images)

So the graying, fragile Phillies have little to do but hope to squeeze another season or two from their local icons, feather in some youth with the likes of Revere, hold a spot for their future (third base), and perhaps pitch themselves back into contention.

The good news: Howard will have put another five months between himself and surgery. Utley seems to have had a promising winter of knee maintenance. The same for Halladay and his ailments. Hamels experienced offseason shoulder discomfort, similar perhaps to what he felt at the end of the regular season, but Amaro has told reporters the issue will not linger.

[Related: Bryce Harper shaves his Mohawk]

The upshot of a relatively quiet offseason for Amaro means the Phillies could be caught light in their outfield corners. Their plan to let Domonic Brown, Darin Ruf, John Mayberry Jr. and Laynce Nix slug it out in spring and enter the season amid twin platoons likely was scrubbed with the addition of Delmon Young, who seems a rather old 27. It'll be left to play itself out, just like the rest of the Phillies' future.

SAVIOR

It wasn't all that long ago when Ryan Howard was pushing 50, even 60 home runs in a season, driving in more than 140 runs in a season, and pulling lots of MVP votes. Those numbers may never return, but Howard certainly is capable of 35 and 110 again, and the sooner the better. Presumably he'll be healthy in '13 and can resume something near the production that made him one of the ferocious batter's box presences in the game.

Assuming the pitching holds – and it should – the Phillies will be OK. A productive Howard makes them dangerous.

HAIKU

When Phils go tumbling
On Utley's knees, Howard's heel
They need a good Doc

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