The Philadelphia Phillies have reached a fork in the road and the organization is stringing its fanbase along while contemplating which direction to go.
In 2013, it's highly improbable to forecast a National League East Division title for the Phillies. However, competing for an NL wild-card berth is not out of the question either. These things we know.
What we don't know is how the Phillies will respond to their current conundrum.
Two years removed from a lineup and pitching staff that dominated opponents at will, the Phillies are now clustered with aging question marks, expiring contracts and a farm system that is null and void.
For instance, second baseman Chase Utley and third baseman Michael Young will be free agents following the season. Former ace Roy Halladay will join the latter two as long as he doesn't accrue 225 innings pitched (or a sum of 415 innings pitched between 2012-2013). Halladay's one-year option could also be renewed if he does not finish the 2013 season on the disabled list.
Additionally, outfielder Delmon Young and utilityman Laynce Nix will also hit the open market for 2014.
Regarding Utley, Young and Halladay, the sum of their 2013 base salaries is $41 million. For comparison's sake, the aforementioned trio will be paid nearly twice as much as the entire Houston Astros 2013 roster ($24.34 million). However, a possibility looms that Utley and Halladay will return for 2014. Young, on the other hand, will be one-and-done in Philadelphia.
The approach the Phillies should consider regarding the present and the future depends upon one's baseball ideology.
Those who favor a sustainable franchise that builds from within via scouting and development will be more than happy to see the Phillies part ways with Utley and Halladay. These same folks are clamoring in anticipation of first baseman Ryan Howard's $125 million contract expiration following the 2017 season.
Those who toe this line follow the principle of development.
On the other hand, there are those who bustle about free agency and the trading block looking for the next big piece to add. For example, this type of crowd might suggest the Boston Red Sox did not err in signing outfielder Carl Crawford to a seven-year contract worth $142 million. Instead of a mistake, these folks feel that Crawford's deal was well worth the investment at the time.
Those who argue in favor of this ideology believe in market superiority. After all, the macroeconomics of baseball tell us that teams in major markets are more likely to spend larger sums of money than their smaller-market counterparts. Hence, market superiority.
Only the ebb and flow of the Major League Baseball season can determine which direction the Phillies take in the short term. By trading Shane Victorino, Hunter Pence and Joe Blanton, 2012 was the first time the Phillies took the developmental approach in more than five seasons.
Recent history in Philadelphia suggests that the long-term approach is to invest heavily in high-priced talent, as long as the roster makeup is considered competitive.
This is where the conundrum rears its ugly head.
At the core of the Phillies roster is nothing but 30-something-year-old's (minus Cole Hamels). Outfielders Ben Revere and Domonic Brown are 24 and 25 years old, respectively. Although, neither Revere nor Brown has established himself in the same fashion as Jimmy Rollins, Utley or Howard.
If anything, Revere and Brown are low on the food chain of established MLB outfielders.
In the cards for the Phillies exists the likelihood of a winning season in 2013. Yet, the winning season is also unlikely to translate into a postseason appearance. Even if it did, only someone with an unrealistic outlook would suggest the Phillies have an opportunity to win the World Series. There are simply too many unanswered questions.
One question is of primary importance, though.
Cliff Lee's $120 million contract does not expire until 2017. If the Phillies are 10 games or more behind second place in the NL East by the trade deadline, do they deal Lee? What if they have to digest a major share of Lee's remaining contract?
Only the performance of the Phillies over the course of the next four months can answer that question.
Another question that must be asked revolves around Utley.
At 34 years old, the second baseman is playing at full health in the month of April for the first time since 2010. With an expiring contract, is Utley expendable at the non-waiver trade deadline if the Phillies are out of contention? On the other hand, if the Phillies can retain Utley for a contract in the $6-8 million-per-year range, should they bring him back in 2014?
With an exhausted farm system and a plethora of over-the-hill MLB talent, the conundrum the Phillies face in the near term has the potential to be devastating. The sky is not falling, but even a fan wearing rose-colored lenses can see the future isn't so bright either.
A painstaking approach to managing the club while weighing the net difference from a cost-benefit analysis will draw criticism from every angle. Unfortunately, doubts persist that general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. is capable of steering the Phillies organization back into World Series contention.
What can be expected in the near term?
A Phillies lineup that will tease the fanbase with just enough wins to remain relevant. Simultaneously, the dark cloud of the future will continue to linger over this franchise. With that said, mediocrity will endure and bitterness will tower as long as the Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves continue to win more games than the team from Citizens Bank Park.
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