The end arrived for this year's Phillies on Wednesday night in the Bronx. As Rollins, Utley and Howard packed their equipment in the losing clubhouse, a thought arose.
These guys aren't kids anymore.
Rollins has joked about looking in the mirror and thinking he looks old.
Utley has a few flecks of gray hair. (It happens to the best of 'em, Chase.)
Howard is two weeks away from hitting the Big Three-Oh.
Rollins and Utley are already there. They will both turn 31 before the New Year.
We're not suggesting these guys are old, but, baseball-wise, they are into their middle-age years.
So are Jayson Werth and Carlos Ruiz. Their opening day ages next season will be 30 and 31. Raul Ibanez's will be 37. If Pedro Feliz returns at third next season (the Phils have until early next week to decide if they'll pick up his contract option), the team will have just one position-player starter under 30 on opening day - Shane Victorino, 29.
As the off-season of 2009-10 begins, the Phillies are not necessarily a team in transition, but those days are not far away.
The Phils remind us of that great new car you always wanted. There's still a lot of good motoring left, but the miles are piling up. Maintenance is more important than ever. Change the oil every 3,000 miles. Get a brake job. Replace the clutch.
Stay on top of all this - you know, improve the bullpen, get another starting pitcher (maybe homegrown Kyle Drabek sometime next summer), upgrade the bench - and this car will keep winning.
After his team's World Series exit, manager Charlie Manuel said: "We will be back."
Rollins, who has said he'd like to see the Phillies put together a little dynasty, said he believes that is still possible.
Utley, when asked to survey the championship-level life span of this team's nucleus, acknowledged that it is not young. But he said it's still plenty viable.
"We're right in the middle of it," he said.
Team management is probably on board with that thinking. Ever since the Phils won the World Series last year, there has been a feeling that this team could squeeze out another championship within the 2009-11 time frame. It's no coincidence that Howard's contract runs through 2011 and he could be off to free agency after that. Howard and the rest of the nucleus will be deep into baseball middle age by then.
The Phils should continue to contend for the next couple of seasons, but a few steps must be taken to maximize the skills of their key players as they put age 30 in the rearview mirror.
Each of the last few springs, Manuel has talked about his desire to get Rollins and Utley more rest, but he has continued to ride them hard. It's difficult to blame him. When you have two of the best players at their positions in the game, you want them to play, especially when Eric Bruntlett is the alternative. This winter, the Phils have to get a reliable middle infielder who can give Rollins and Utley an occasional blow. Finding a way to get Howard some time would also benefit a team that believes it will play big games in September and October.
Howard (seventh), Werth (10th), Rollins (16th) and Utley (19th) all finished in the top 20 in the majors in innings played this season. Over the last two seasons, Howard ranks second and Utley seventh. And that doesn't count two lengthy postseason rides. Over the last four seasons, Howard (fifth), Rollins (ninth) and Utley (11th) all rank among the major-league leaders in innings. Some baseball people believe that when the Phils' nucleus crashes, it will crash hard, so protecting it now is imperative.
The heavy workload even extends to the pitching staff. Cliff Lee (455) and Cole Hamels (421) rank third and 14th in innings over the last two seasons - and that's not counting the postseason.
It is particularly important that Manuel watch Utley next season. The Phils' second baseman detests days off, but Manuel has to pull rank or risk watching Utley wither as the season reaches its most crucial weeks. Utley is a grinder, physically and mentally. He throws his body around like a rag doll and annually leads the league in hit by pitches. A September slump resulted in his numbers coming down across the board this season. He is signed through 2013. If the Phils want to get returns on the life of that deal, they have to be more protective of him in coming seasons.
This is just the way it is.
Time marches on and it is beginning to show in the Phillies' clubhouse.
This nucleus still has good years left, championship years, even. But maximizing those years will start with proper maintenance.
Contact staff writer Jim Salisbury
at 215-854-4983 or email@example.com.