Phillies' five core position players getting older

Posted: September 30, 2011

The top four Phillies starting pitchers have gotten the attention this season, right from the start of spring training, and there's no reason to think that will change when the postseason begins and the team's best hopes appear to rest with those arms.

But as the Phils enter their fifth straight postseason, it is worth wondering if the five players who have anchored the offense during that span can keep their streak going much longer.

Ten pitchers have started games for the Phillies in the postseason since they began their run humbly in 2007 with a sweeping loss in the first round, and a changing gallery of players have played third base, right field, and left field. Through it all, though, Charlie Manuel could sit at his desk before each postseason game and write in the names of Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, and Carlos Ruiz.

That won't be the case too much longer. Howard, Ruiz, and Victorino should be around, barring injury. But Utley is playing despite a bad knee that has sapped his power, and his longevity is a question. Rollins will be a free agent at the end of this season and will command a large contract somewhere.

Will the Phillies be able to bring the group back for one more run in 2012 - both physically and financially? Maybe, but remember to take a look at what is here right now, and the stability these five players brought to the recent postseason streak.

Here's a statistic to consider. In the nine postseason series the Phils have played since 2007, the offense has had 319 hits. Howard, Utley, Rollins, Victorino, and Ruiz combined for 192 of those, or 60.2 percent. What is remarkable is not that five-eighths of the position players in a batting order could account for that production, but that they have done it every time.

The worst series for them was a division series win over Milwaukee in 2008 when they had merely 50 percent of the hits (16 of 32) and the best was the NL Championship Series against Los Angeles in 2009 when they accounted for 72.2 percent of the hits (26 of 36) in the five-game series win.

If the pitching holds up its end this season, the pressure will be on the offense to score enough runs to keep up. Some of that pressure will be on Raul Ibanez, Hunter Pence, and Placido Polanco, for sure, but the five guys who have been through all the battles together will be expected to lead again. No logical person fears a pitching meltdown, but the Phils could easily be derailed by a sharp, even if brief, offensive slump.

There is history in that. In their last four postseason series, the Phillies have batted .231, .227, .212, and .216. They won two of those four series because of superior pitching, but eventually they had to score runs against the Yankees in the 2009 World Series and against the Giants in the 2010 NLCS, and they didn't score enough.

Against the Giants, the Phils actually had a lower ERA than the San Francisco pitchers (2.91-3.06) and scored one more run in the series (20-19). They didn't score them in the right games, though, and it doesn't take much of a failing when a team cuts the margin of error so finely.

It has taken all of them to win six postseason series in the last four years, but there's no denying that Rollins, both offensively and defensively, has been in the middle of things. Now, for the first time, there is real reason to wonder if he will return.

The Phillies, even in a sport without a salary cap, even as an organization that counts sellouts in the hundreds, will have to consider whether a new, long-term contract for Rollins is a good idea. He has not played a full season in three of the last four years, and he will turn 33 in November. In the minor leagues, 21-year-old shortstop Freddy Galvis had a strong year split between Reading and Lehigh Valley. The organization will take all that into account.

Rollins, who has made $46.5 million in the last six seasons, will enter a market in which not only won't he be the most attractive free agent, he won't even be the most attractive free-agent shortstop. That would be 28-year-old Jose Reyes.

Maybe it makes the most sense for Rollins to take less and stay in Philadelphia, but it only matters if that makes the most sense to Rollins.

As for Utley, he is tethered to the team until 2013, but he is tiring quickly. He'll be 33 in December and hasn't played more than 115 games in a season since 2009. He hit 31 home runs in 156 games in 2009 and has hit 27 home runs in 218 games since. Whatever issue still bothers him in his left knee, which drives the ball for a lefthanded hitter, could be what keeps him from going much further as a key player.

Those are thoughts for next season, of course. The five players - Howard, Utley, Rollins, Victorino, Ruiz - are all here now, and they will direct the course through the playoffs. This could be the last time, though. Everything has to change eventually. Five years is a long time in baseball.

Take a look. These guys have together written the stories you will tell, and - who knows? - they may have one more to write.


Contact columnist Bob Ford at bford@phillynews.com or @bobfordsports on Twitter. Read his blog, "Post Patterns," at www.philly.com/postpatterns. Read his past columns at www.philly.com/bobford

 

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