Now what? Phillies face obstacles, but it's not the definite end

How the NLCS ended Saturday night reminds Sports Illustrated baseball writer Joe Lemire about how the Mets fell to the Cardinals in 2006.

Simply substitute Carlos Beltran(notes) and Adam Wainwright(notes) for Ryan Howard(notes) and Brian Wilson(notes) — who got the last out with a called strike three — and you have a possible harbinger of doom for the Philadelphia Phillies.

Not that he expects the Fightins to collapse as hard or as absurdly as the Mets did over the next few seasons after '06, but Lemire wonders if the window is closing on Philadelphia's dominance in the NL East.

From S.I.:

The Phillies are no lock to return to a fifth straight playoffs next season, no matter how good their team already looks on paper. While there's no reason to think the Phillies will carom off the same cliff as the Mets [...] Philadelphia may be entering more of a critical juncture than it's expecting.

Lemire worries about advancing age, about Howard's contract eating up too much of future payroll budgets, about a lack of right-handed power without Jayson Werth(notes) and about a lack of depth in the bullpen and on the bench.

Lemire's analogy has a powerful visual and there are reasons for doubt.

Here are five things could prevent the Phillies winning a fifth straight playoff berth:

1. Werth is not a mere luxury. With a 145+ OPS, Werth was the Phillies most productive offensive player in 2010. He led them in plate appearances, runs scored, doubles, walks, total bases and slugging percentage. He was second in hits, home runs, RBIs and on-base percentage. But Werth's a free agent and not everyone on the team can make $10-15 million a season. Still, being first or second in the NL in runs scored is one of the main reasons the Phillies have gone to the playoffs every season since 2007. The lost offense would have to be recovered somehow.

2. Domonic Brown(notes) is not a sure thing — yet. If Werth goes, simply hoping the 23-year-old Brown has a good rookie season isn't enough to cover the loss. Brown (hoodie) is a terrific prospect and probably will be a great player — but it doesn't always happen right away. What if he gets demoted to the minors after a slow start? Ben Francisco(notes) every day in right?

3. Chase Utley(notes) hasn't been healthy. Utley, the team's best player when right, injured his right thumb in late July. He slugged .410 in the second half of the season — well below his standards, which didn't pick up in the playoffs.

4. Jimmy Rollins(notes) needs to get back on a J-Roll. Rollins has had two down years in a row and was banged-up for all of this season. He and Utley are going on 32; The older you get, the harder it is to stay healthy. This is a contract year for Rollins coming up. Will things line up for him as they did for Werth?

5. This is assuming everything else works out. The Phillies had a lot of bad luck this season with injuries and still led the league with 97 victories. If they win the NL East in 2011, it will make for five straight divisions — something only a handful of teams have ever accomplished.

Will Roy Halladay(notes), Roy Oswalt(notes) and Cole Hamels(notes) give them the best front-loaded pitching staff in the majors? Probably, but what if Halladay hurts his groin again, or Hamels reverts to '09 form for half a season? Stuff like that happens all of the time.

Can they count on Carlos Ruiz(notes) to, again, play way above anyone's expectations? The back end of Philly's bullpen was great in the second half with Brad Lidge(notes) and Ryan Madson(notes), but Phillies fans know how fragile relievers can be. The bench was terrible, by the Beard of Eric Bruntlett(notes).

The good news is, most teams have the same kind of doubts in the same kind of places. But bullpens can be filled out, and benches can be replenished. Where the Phillies have a big edge: They still have more good players than most other teams. Talent usually wins in the end, as it has for Philadelphia since '07.

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