"I don't really think that hard about it. It's a fact," Jimmy Rollins said of whether a healthy Phillies team would return to the playoffs in 2013. "Fourteen games under. We got our lineup back for the most part and winded up playing 14 games over. That's always a positive sign. But we just got back so far that 14 over only got us to .500 at the end of the season."
Rollins is referring to the season's low-water mark: a week after Howard and Utley played their first game together, in the first game after the All-Star break, the Phils lost to the Rockies to fall 14 games under .500 (37-51). They finished the season at .500 (81-81).
Even if you backdate the math to a week earlier, the first game that the Phils played with both Utley and Howard, it was a 10-game swing: 37-47 before, 44-34 after.
Of course if you continue the math and figure the Phils are 10 games over .500 for the duration of the season with both Utley and Howard, they'd be 86-76. That was the record the Los Angeles Dodgers had; they finished two games back of the St. Louis Cardinals and also went home at the end of the regular season.
Regardless of how the math would have played out, there's no denying this: The Phillies are a more potent team with Utley and Howard on the field. What, you thought Ty Wigginton and Pete Orr could hold down the fort?
But the importance of the health of the two pillars on the right side of the Phillies infield - and for Rollins, too - should go without saying. The larger question is whether that veteran trio will continue to regress as star players, or whether they have a late-career renaissance remaining.
Since Howard, Utley and Rollins combined for 97 home runs, 317 runs scored and 936 total bases in 2009, when the Phils advanced to the World Series, the trio has averaged a total of 54 combined home runs, 203 runs and 593 total bases in each of the last three seasons.
While the Phils have tinkered with the pitching and have regularly let outfielders go, they've committed to this infield. In 2013, the production of those infielders must match up with their paychecks.
If you include catcher Carlos Ruiz, who will have a $5 million team option exercised, the Phillies have $51 million committed to their infielders in 2013 and a grand total of $152 million committed to them in the long-term. And that doesn't include the salary of the unknown player that will fill one of the most glaring holes on the roster: third base.
Kevin Frandsen impressed in his 2-month tryout in place of the oft-injured Placido Polanco (a free agent), but he doesn't provide much power from a position where a team like the Phillies needs power. Frandsen is better suited at a utility infielder, backing up Utley, Rollins and the mystery third baseman.
Rookie Freddy Galvis is probably the odds-on favorite for the position as the roster stands today, despite playing all of one professional game at third base. Before an injury and a 50-game suspension for using performance enhancing drugs ended his season in June, Galvis impressed in his transition from shortstop to second, and is a favorite of both manager Charlie Manuel and general manager Ruben Amaro Jr.
If the Phils add ample production to an outfield in transition - say, by adding two accomplished veterans - and if Utley and Howard regain their power strokes, they might be able to make due with Galvis at third. But those are some big "ifs."
The third-base free-agent market offers almost nothing, unless you like the sick joke of reuniting Scott Rolen with his favorite, boo-heavy fan base. It should be noted that Rolen played in fewer games than Polanco in the last 2 years (157) and was about as productive, too (.244 batting average, .698 OPS).
You can dream about trading for New York's David Wright or San Diego's Chase Headley. But the reality is the Mets would like to lock up their franchise player before he hits free agency next winter (and surely wouldn't be keen on trading him to a division rival) and the Padres, sparked by a spirited second-half run and new ownership, will do everything to lock up Headley long-term.
Even if Headley did become available, it's difficult to think the Phils, with a short supply of near-ready, position player prospects, would match up with San Diego. There's a better chance that the Phillies enter spring training with the same quandary at third base that they entered with in the offseason.
It's also difficult to expect Ruiz to repeat a career year, although he could at least be a capable, middle-of-the-order bat.
If the Phils hope that 2012 was just a blip on the radar and that 2013 will bring a return to the top of the National League East, it really is as simple as the shortstop said. Rollins, Utley and Howard have to all be healthy and productive.
"There are going to be guys out there . . . the winter meetings come along, free agents pop up, trades come about and we'll see who we end up with," said Rollins, who hit just .263 with a .726 OPS in the first 3 months of the season, when Utley and Howard were on the DL. "But for the most part, the team isn't going to be that much different as far and the everyday players, the regular pieces."
Contact Ryan Lawrence at email@example.com.