The answer to when the Phillies will contend again is entirely dependent on how the team's ownership will respond to the dry rot that consumed the last two seasons.
There are basically two ways this can go.
The first and less likely path would be to put the checkbook away for the foreseeable future and hope that the $110 million already promised to six players (Ryan Howard, Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee, Chase Utley, Jonathan Papelbon and Jimmy Rollins) will pay bigger dividends in a new year.
The primary problem with this strategy is that the Phillies already tried it in 2012 and 2013 with minimal success.
If the Phillies were my client (wouldn't that be a sweet gig) I would advise them not to repeat their dismal recent history by exclusively trying to fill the gaping holes around their old, expensive pieces with young, cheap ones.
Look at the Phillies roster. Beyond the aforementioned six players, who are all almost certainly coming back, one of the highest-paid Phillies might never pitch again:
Roy Halladay leaves the game after facing just 3 batters in Miami.— MLB (@MLB) September 23, 2013
The next guy after him will make $7 million next season whether his elbow allows him to pitch or not. And Carlos Ruiz may in fact be back in Philadelphia next year, but the Phillies will probably not need to pay him $5 million to convince him to stay.
The point here is that the Phillies roster, as currently constructed, is a stark dichotomy of haves and have-nots.
Domonic Brown, Darin Ruf, Cody Asche and Ben Revere will essentially make meal money for the 2014 Phillies; barring a big free agent signing or two, all four of them factor prominently in next season's plans.
As stated above, though, that plan of new-found frugality is just not working.
So the Phillies are going to have go the way of the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers and other similarly situated clubs and try to spend their way out of this quagmire of mediocrity.
While the attendance figures dwindle, the Phillies are coincidentally trying to leverage competing networks' interest in their television rights which are up for bidding starting with the 2016 season.
Thus, now is not the time for an overhaul. Television rights to a rebuilding club do not project to have the same lustre as would the same rights to a winning team.
Ideally, of course, the Phillies would do things the way the St. Louis Cardinals, Atlanta Braves, Pittsburgh Pirates (yeah, I said it) and other fiscally prudent teams have: by consistently drafting good players and developing them into, at worst, competent major league players and, at best, All-Stars.
It's a little late for that, though. The Phillies allegedly strip-mined their farm system in the trades that brought back players like Hunter Pence, Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay.
When will the Phillies next contend for a title?
But they have not exactly been haunted by any of the players who left town in any of those deals, which suggests that except maybe for Jarred Cosart none of those prospects were much use anyway.
And except for Brown, the only thing the Phillies have developed the past few years is a tendency to implode.
Given the foregoing, then, you can realistically expect the Phillies to make some aggressive trades and expensive free-agent signings this offseason.
Neither the Braves nor the Washington Nationals have the look of a dynastic force, and with two wild cards in play now you don't even have to be all that good to get into the playoffs.
Which, as the the 2011 Cardinals can attest, is really all you need to do.