Phillies, in present and future tense

Posted: April 01, 2013

FIRST, Shane Victorino grounded out to end the 2009 World Series, and then Ryan Howard was caught looking at a third strike to conclude the 2010 National League Championship Series.

In 2011, Howard's left Achilles' snapped and he collapsed after hitting a grounder for the final out of the National League Division Series at Citizens Bank Park. The 2012 season ended with the Phillies missing out on the playoffs altogether, and with unofficial team spokesman Jimmy Rollins saying things would have been different had everyone been healthy.

The respective failures of the last four seasons are history.

The Phils are 6 months away from the 5-year anniversary of the moment Brad Lidge collapsed to his knees and embraced Carlos Ruiz. More history.

As the 2013 season begins, the Phillies, however, will hope the heroes of playoff series past return to their former glory. They will be relying on history for future success.

"Nothing has changed in our mentality or my mentality about how I feel about where this team should be or will be," Rollins said. "The players we have, I like it. The bullpen is good. The lineup has an opportunity to be real deep. If we play quality baseball on both sides, and the mental side of the game, too, it's going to be a fun team."

It's also going to be a team that is in control of the organization's fate beyond 2013, too.

Ruiz, Chase Utley, Roy Halladay, Michael Young and Delmon Young can all become free agents after the season. Domonic Brown and Darin Ruf can become full-time major league players in 2013, or they, too, could be looking for new places to play in 2014.

Manager Charlie Manuel, who is also entering the final year of his contract, is manning a franchise that is at an organizational crossroads.

Can the Phillies regain their health and talent on a march back to the postseason? Or will they resemble the aging, oft-injured team that in 2012 was the first Phillies team in a decade without a winning record?

"This could be a very pivotal year for us," general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said. "A lot of it will depend on how people perform, on how the young players perform. At some point we're going to be filtering some young players onto this club and we need to find out who needs to be those guys to keep us going, to keep us afloat."

Brown's spring training eased some of those concerns. The 25-year-old former top prospect could be on the verge of a breakout season, and providing the Phillies with a long-awaited, young, homegrown bat to eventually take the reins from Rollins, Howard and Utley.

"I look at Dom and what you see is real," Manuel said of Brown, who had seven home runs and hit .356 during exhibition play. "He shows you that it's there. It's just a matter of going out and keep playing."

But Brown and the handful of newcomers Amaro brought in this winter - third baseman Michael Young, setup man Mike Adams, starting pitcher John Lannan and outfielders Ben Revere and Delmon Young - won't matter much if those aforementioned veteran cogs aren't producing.

Rollins, Howard and Utley haven't played a full season together since 2009. When Howard and Utley played their first game together last season - when the season was already 3 months old - the Phillies were 10 games under .500, 13 games back of Washington and in last place.

"If those guys are healthy, you know they're going to perform," Rollins said of his longtime infield teammates. "Their track record shows it. Unfortunately, when they're not healthy, the track record shows for that, too."

Ditto Doc.

While Howard and Utley have had encouraging springs, Roy Halladay has had an uneasy spring training. He came into camp raring to go but entered the final week coming off an illness and an off-kilter performance that had outsiders once again questioning his effectiveness.

Even with a rotation with fellow All-Stars Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee, the Phils went 15-27 when Halladay was on the disabled list for 7 weeks in 2012.

If Halladay returns to form, the Phils look like a potential playoff team. If he doesn't, his 4-year tenure in Philadelphia could come to an end with the conclusion of the season.

A second straight season out of the playoffs could also mean the end for Utley and Ruiz and Manuel.

"I'm not worried about next year and 2 years and 3 years from now," Halladay said upon arriving to camp. "I'm trying to win a World Series . . . That's the reason I'm here. And that's it."

That's the goal of all 30 teams in baseball.

For some, it's a pipe dream. For others, it's within reach.

The Phils could reboot a postseason run that began six seasons ago. Or this summer could prove to be the beginning of the end, with a series of sad goodbyes in September.

The clock is ticking on the nucleus of Howard, Utley, Rollins, Ruiz and company.

"You can look at the clock if you want, but we're focused on playing baseball," Howard said. "Yeah, there is a window of opportunity, but if you focus on the window closing, then you never let that cool breeze come in. But right now, the window is still open, so we have to go out and take advantage of this nice breeze while we can."

The Phils are built to win in 2013. But beyond 2013? That's all dependent on what route the team takes this season.

They will continue a path toward prosperity, or they will go their separate ways. There really doesn't appear to be room for a middle ground.

At least the resident sage was feeling good about his team's chances.

"It's a great dynamic we have now," Rollins said, looking around at healthy clubhouse. "Last year, everybody was uncertain. There's a lot more certainty around here."

" @ryanlawrence21

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