The Philadelphia Phillies picked a bad season to flirt with the .500 mark.
At this time last season they were 11 games over .500, two years ago they were six games over, and three years ago they were 11 games over once again. But more importantly, in all three of those prior seasons their current 28-29 record would have been good for second or third place in the NL East.
But in the 2012 version of the NL East, it has them sitting in the cellar.
This year's NL East is the most-improved, deepest, and quite possibly the best division in baseball, with only the American League's Eastern division giving them a run for their money.
The Nationals have allowed the least runs in baseball by a shockingly large margin. The Marlins are the hottest team in the NL. The Mets are 31-21 despite a negative run-differential––which, along with Johan Santana's improbable eradication of the team's no-hitter curse, is starting to make this feel like a blessed season. And the Braves, the only other team in the division that was supposed to play well this season, have been as steady as ever.
Translation: the Phillies aren't gonna ascend into playoff contention by waiting for their peers to regress to the mean. One, maybe two, of the four teams ahead of them might be off to fluky starts that will fade away through the doldrums of summer. But some of them will stick.
If the Phillies want to return to the playoffs this season, they're gonna have to get markedly better. Here are the five players who are most essential to a Philly U-turn in 2012.