9/17/2013 12:00 P.M. ET
Fortunes of a franchise can turn around quickly
Phillies example of team needing to regroup fast after reaching heights
By Paul Hagen / MLB.com
Here's a helpful reminder of how quickly things can change in baseball:
Just two years ago, the Phillies were coasting to their fifth straight National League East title and on their way to a franchise-record 102 wins. The Brewers were closing in on the NL Central flag, which they'd take with 96 wins. And the D-backs were wrapping up the NL West. They'd finish with 94 regular-season victories.
Today the Phillies and Brewers have been eliminated. Both are almost certain to finish with losing records. The D-backs are hovering around .500 and are a prohibitive long shot to appear in the postseason.
And, of course, in the here and now, the Giants will finish with one of the worst records for a defending World Series champion.
Clearly, drastic reversals are common. But why?
One factor, certainly, is that all the measures meant to insure competitive balance between the larger- and smaller-market clubs are having an impact. Beyond that, every situation is unique. But let's take a look at the Phillies and see if there are any lessons to be learned from their abrupt dropoff ... and how they will try to bounce back.
The Phils have skewed toward a future-is-now approach in recent seasons, and that makes some sense. Second baseman Chase Utley, shortstop Jimmy Rollins and first baseman Ryan Howard are generally regarded as the best in franchise history at their respective positions. So doing whatever it took to go for it while that nucleus was intact is difficult to argue with.
"My friends [late coach] John Vukovich and [former manager] Dallas Green always said you get very few chances to win a world championship, and when you have the opportunity to win a world championship, that's what you should do -- go for it," general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said recently. "We came awfully close in '09. We arguably had the best team in baseball for two or three years. We just didn't play well in the playoffs. I still believe the teams in '09, '10 and '11 were better than the [World Series champion] team in '08, on paper. We just didn't get it done, because we didn't play good baseball at the time."
At the same time Amaro was trading prospects to try to keep the window of opportunity open, though, the established stars began having a hard time staying on the field. Utley averaged just 93 games in 2011 and '12 because of chronic knee issues. Howard has played a total of 151 games the last two seasons after rupturing his Achilles while making the final out of the 2011 NL Division Series.
For the Phillies, 2011 will always be remembered as the year of the Four Aces. The return of left-hander Cliff Lee created a rotation that also included Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt. The emphasis on pitching paid off, too. Halladay, Lee and Hamels all finished in the top five of the NL Cy Young Award voting. And Vance Worley stepped up to go 11-3 and finish third in the NL Rookie of the Year Award balloting.
Halladay, battling shoulder and back issues, hasn't been the same since. Oswalt, who also spent time on the disabled list in 2011, was allowed to leave at the end of the season as a free agent. Every team has injuries, but Philadelphia has seemed to lose key players with regularity and to lose them for long periods of time.
But with a long streak of home sellouts that didn't end until 2012, the Philliies had little choice but to keep adding proven veterans. The roster got older. Injuries kept mounting.
"Our health started to deteriorate," Amaro said. "Age was an issue, too. Age and health go hand in hand."
Not every move turned out well. And even the ones that should have been helpful backfired instead. In 2012, the Phils lost 22 games when they were tied or leading after seven. So Amaro signed Mike Adams, one of the best setup relievers in baseball. At least he is when he's healthy. Which Adams wasn't most of this year.
Last spring, it seemed that the Phillies were a team that needed a lot of things to go right. Instead, too much went wrong. As club president Dave Montgomery put it: "We were not the club we envisioned to be in either of the last two years coming out of Spring Training."
As difficult as that's made this year -- the Phils will endure their first losing season since 2002 -- it's also created opportunities moving forward. It's allowed third baseman Cody Asche and first baseman-outfielder Darin Ruf to get significant playing time. And both have performed well enough to make them front-runners for everyday spots in 2014. Freddy Galvis and Cesar Hernandez have opened some eyes. It meant interim manager Ryne Sandberg has been able to audition young relievers in a variety of roles. Jake Diekman and B.J. Rosenberg have been impressive.
"I think some of the question marks in the bullpen could have been answered, so that might have narrowed that down," Sandberg said. "I think with some of the youth, and young guys that have created some spark and have shown some athleticism and speed, I think that has shown the last three or four weeks. I think that's a good thing and I think that was needed. So there's a real good chance those guys are here. And then getting everybody back and being healthy."
After all, things can change quickly for the better, too. Just ask the Red Sox, who have the best record in baseball a year after finishing last.
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.