On the surface, the Philadelphia Phillies look like a team in rapid decline. After setting a franchise record with 102 victories in 2011, the team hasn't been over .500 since.
During the early days of spring training, optimism is easy to find on baseball fields in Florida and Arizona, where players are rejuvenated, refreshed and often in the best shape of their respective careers. By the time April begins, reality arrives.
In Philadelphia, a cast of former champions is trying to stave off extinction and produce one last run at glory. Yet, with 81 and 89 losses, respectively, over the last two years, it's not easy to envision this Phillies team playing meaningful September baseball.
If they do surprise, health will be the biggest reason for a turnaround.
Of course, unlike the run of dominance from 2007-2011, the Phillies don't have the firepower to cascade into October baseball. During that run, the Phillies' ceiling was routinely 100-plus victories and the best record in the National League.
Now, three years later, the same level of performance probably won't be good enough to garner a wild-card spot in the National League.
Don't tell that to relief pitcher Jonathan Papelbon. During a colorful session with the media in Clearwater, Fla., the longtime closer wasn't bashful about how good he thought the 2014 Phillies could be, per Jeff Skversky of 6 ABC Philly.
"If I was a gambling man, I would take us to go all the way," Papelbon said.
If Papelbon has any chance to look prescient, two areas of this team will have to come together to form a winning foundation: The big four and three aces.
Let's start with the position players.
In New York, the Yankees built a dynasty on the back of four homegrown position players: Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada and Bernie Williams. In Philadelphia, another quartet emerged into a winning nucleus: Chase Utley, Carlos Ruiz, Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard.
Although different and less heralded, Philadelphia's nucleus delivered results, including a World Series championship in 2008 and return trip in 2009.
Yet, since the end of the 2009 season, they haven't been on the field together enough to deliver the same results. According to Ryan Lawrence of the Philadelphia Daily News, the Utley-Ruiz-Rollins-Howard quartet has started just 116 of 648 possible games together over the last five seasons.
In those games, the Phillies are 68-48, good for a winning percentage of .586. Over the course of 162 games, that winning percentage prorates to a 95-67 record.
Clearly, it's overly optimistic to ask any of that group to play in every game in 2014—especially a catcher like Ruiz—but the point remains: When the Phillies have had their four lineup rocks together, they've won.
Unfortunately for Phillies fans, the quartet has aged and gone through a myriad of injury issues. Ryan Howard, the 2006 NL MVP, profiles as the biggest question mark of the four. After suffering through leg issues since 2011, the days of .900-or-better OPS marks are likely over.
That didn't stop the 34-year-old first baseman from expressing optimism when camp opened, per Jim Salisbury of CSN Philly.
“I feel like I can play 162 games,” Howard said. “My whole offseason was dedicated to trying to play all 162, plus trying to make it to the playoffs. My goal isn’t to come out here and try to play 120 games. That’s not why I play baseball.”
At this point, the Phillies would gladly take 140 games from Howard, Utley, Ruiz and Rollins. While full, unimpeded seasons would be nice, they aren't realistic. Despite decline, each of Philadelphia's veterans has been adequate-to-excellent among their peers when healthy.
In 2011, Howard's last season of 150-plus games, the slugger posted an .835 OPS. Last year, Allen Craig, Prince Fielder, Adrian Gonzalez, Eric Hosmer and Nick Swisher all failed to match that mark.
Despite an on-base percentage of only .317 since the start of 2012, Jimmy Rollins ranks seventh among shortstops in that category. With offensive and the run-scoring environment down, the 35-year-old still reaches base more than most of his peers.
In 2012, Carlos Ruiz posted a .935 OPS, 149 OPS+ and .394 on-base percentage. Over the last two decades, only five catchers have matched or exceeded a season like that. Their names: Piazza, Napoli, Mauer, Posada and Posey.
During Chase Utley's prime (2006-2010), he was worth 39.5 bWAR. That figure is the second highest in baseball history for any second baseman between the ages of 26 and 30, trailing only Rogers Hornsby's run from 1922-1926.
Those days are over, but Utley's 3.5 bWAR in 2013 was still the ninth best among second baseman.
If the Phillies' offensive veterans can profile as durable contributors, a dominant, top-heavy rotation could carry the team into relevance.
The following chart compares the top three starters in two recent starting rotations. As you can see, Group A was superior in durability, run prevention and strikeout-to-walk ratio. Across the board, they trumped Group B.
Yet, the difference wasn't stark. Group B's performance was very, very good and capable of generating victories.
As you may have guessed, Group A is the 2011 Phillies' trio of Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels.
Group B? The combined 2013 statistics of the newly formed Big Three in Philadelphia: Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and A.J. Burnett.
If the 2014 Phillies can receive a close facsimile of either of those standout rotation numbers, the pitching staff will be in good shape. From dominance to innings, the Lee-Hamels-Burnett trio—if healthy—can be one of the best in the league.
Now that we've explored how the Philles reach their ceiling, what win total is actually realistic if so many question marks turn into positive answers?
Recently, MLB Network released the 2014 PECOTA projections for 2014 records. The Phillies came in at 76-86, which, despite how poor that looks, is actually a three-game improvement from last season.
Those projections factor everything into account, from best- to worst-case scenarios. Factoring in the production of Philadelphia's veterans when healthy and the potential of the Lee-Hamels-Burnett trio, 87 wins feels right for a ceiling on the 2014 Phillies.
Unfortunately, for a city that became so accustomed to October baseball, the Phillies' best likely isn't good enough for a return to the postseason.
Since 2007, the second wild-card team from the NL (factoring in which team was in that position in the years before the additional spot was added) averaged 88.8 wins.
The 2014 Phillies can, and likely will, be better than their 2013 version. If everything goes right, meaningful baseball could be on the horizon in August and September.
Yet, despite any optimism from Clearwater, Fla., predicting a return to glory in Philadelphia is too much to ask from this group.
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Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted. All contract figures courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts. Arbitration numbers and projections courtesy of MLB Trade Rumors. Roster projections courtesy of MLB Depth Charts.