The general manager of every team in baseball is charged with making his team better at this hot stove time of year, and nobody has a more difficult job of that than Ruben Amaro Jr.
In every season since 2006, the Phillies have won more games than the previous year. The number went from 85 in 2006 to 89 the next year, and it has improved from 92 to 93 to 97 to a franchise record 102 wins in 2011.
At some point the laws of gravity have to take effect, and given the state of the team, even with the addition of Thome, this looks like the time that that is going to happen.
You have to go back to the 2007 season to find a time when there has been more instability and question marks about manager Charlie Manuel's lineup.
That year, which started the current string of five straight National League East titles, the Phillies went into the season unsure about who would replace Mike Lieberthal at catcher, David Bell at third base, and Bobby Abreu in right field. The answers ended up being Carlos Ruiz at catcher, a peculiar combination of Greg Dobbs, Wes Helms, and Abraham Nunez at third base, and a platoon of Shane Victorino and Jayson Werth in right field.
The Phillies can only hope that Amaro can piece together a similarly successful cast of replacements for the 2012 season. But this situation could not be more opposite than the one former general manager Pat Gillick faced in 2007.
At that time, the Phillies were still considered underachievers, and just a postseason taste was enough to whet the appetite of a fan base that had not seen playoff baseball since 1993.
Since 2007, the lineup tinkering has mostly been minor. Pedro Feliz took control of third base for the 2008-09 seasons and was replaced by Placido Polanco in 2010. Victorino earned the right to replace free-agent centerfielder Aaron Rowand in 2008, and Werth became the regular rightfielder.
The Phillies won a World Series, everybody got rich, and, along the way, the Expectations Monster grew larger than the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.
Amaro must feed the Expectations Monster now, and it won't be easy.
The general manager cannot be sure when his first baseman will play his first game next season because Ryan Howard is rehabilitating a torn Achilles tendon in his left foot, an injury that may linger into summer.
Maybe Thome can fill the void if needed, but he has played only 28 innings in the field over the last six years and you'd have to think that lack of work has severely diminished his skills.
A new leftfielder will be in place because Raul Ibanez is not likely to return. Amaro has already identified John Mayberry Jr. as the leading candidate for that job, but that move would be accompanied by a question mark, for sure.
Manuel liked comparing the 2011 Mayberry to the 2007 Werth, and the similarities are remarkable. In 304 plate appearances, Mayberry hit .273 with 17 doubles, 15 home runs, and 49 RBIs last season. Werth, in 2007, batted .298 with 11 doubles, eight home runs, and 49 RBIs in the same number of plate appearances.
The Phillies were concerned enough about Werth's .257 average against righthanded pitching in 2007 that they signed the lefthanded hitting Geoff Jenkins as a free agent. Werth, of course, won the job during the season. Mayberry is a .236 career hitter against righthanders and batted .250 against them last year, so you have to think a lefthanded bat of some sort is on Amaro's to-do list.
The feeling here is that Jimmy Rollins will eventually re-sign with the Phillies, but the only other former Phillies MVP to test the free-agent waters was Mike Schmidt in 1988.
Second baseman Chase Utley and third baseman Placido Polanco will be back, but because of age and injuries, there's no guarantee they'll ever return to the all-star form they have flashed in the past.
Ruiz, Victorino, and rightfielder Hunter Pence appear to be the three lineup staples at this point. But there are also going to be some issues about who hits where next season, especially if Rollins goes elsewhere and is not replaced by someone like the New York Mets' Jose Reyes.
When the season ended, Utley was the No. 2 hitter, Victorino had moved to fifth in the order, and Polanco belonged in the eight hole even if he was hitting seventh. Who hits fourth if the Phillies have to spend the first two months of the season without Howard?
It has been a long time since there have been this many questions about the Phillies lineup, and that's why it's hard to imagine the win total ascending again in 2012.
Starting pitching, of course, remains the strength even if, as expected, Roy Oswalt is working elsewhere. A World Series title should still be within the Phillies' reach, especially if Amaro pushes the right buttons at the right time. But 103 regular-season wins is a big number that, right now, appears unachievable.
Contact staff writer Bob Brookover at email@example.com
or @brookob on Twitter.