Do not take any of this as a suggestion that the Phillies should start making plans for the debutante ball. Five of their eight projected regulars are at least 34. Three of their five projected starters are at least 33. The Phillies are not a team full of spring chickens, but they are not unique in that regard. Since 1996, only two teams have finished a season with five hitters logging 400 plate appearances who are 34 or older. But one of those teams went to Game 7 of the World Series (the 2002 Giants). Of the eight teams that featured four 34-plus-year-olds, five finished with a winning record, three went to the playoffs, and two won the World Series (the 2009 Yankees and the 2001 Diamondbacks).
In the Phillies' Game 5 loss in the NLDS in 2011, the Cardinals started 33-year-old Rafael Furcal, Skip Schumaker (31), Albert Pujols (31), Lance Berkman (35), Matt Holliday (31), Nick Punto (33) and Chris Carpenter (36). The year before, they lost to a Giants team that included Andres Torres (32), Freddy Sanchez (32), Aubrey Huff (33), Pat Burrell (33) and Edgar Renteria (33).
The Phillies' problem has not been their lack of youth. Rather, it has been their lack of depth. One of the causes of that lack of depth is the money they have spent on their older players. But age itself is not the issue. Lest you view this distinction as mere semantics, consider that last offseason, the Phillies expressed some interest in signing 37-year-old free agent Torii Hunter to play rightfield. After Hunter signed a 2-year, $26 million contract with the Tigers, the Phillies settled for 27-year-old Delmon Young on a 1-year deal that ended up paying him around $2 million. Hunter hit .304/.334/.465 with 17 home runs in 652 plate appearances for the Tigers. Young hit .261/.302/.397 with eight home runs in 291 plate appearances for the Phillies.
If the Phillies did not have Ryan Howard under contract at $25 million, perhaps they would have signed Nick Swisher to play first base for 4 years and $56 million, or Mike Napoli for 1 year and $5 million, or Adam LaRoche for 2 years and $24 million. Then, they sign Hunter for 2 years and $26 million. And for the same price as they paid for the Howard/Young combo, they would have ended up getting Hunter/Swisher or Hunter/Napoli or Hunter/Young. It's that kind of logic that is missing whenever Ruben Amaro Jr. goes on record to defend the Howard deal.
"If Ryan Howard had continued on his path and did not blow out his Achilles' [in the Phillies' final game of the 2011 playoffs] . . . with the 10-year contracts that were being doled out at the time that he would have become a free agent, he would have been right there with them," Amaro told FoxSports.com in a Q&A published last week.
The logic suggests the Phillies were compelled to pay Howard whatever he commanded on the open market. Less than 4 months ago, the Cardinals won the NLCS despite opting against signing Pujols to a 10-year contract to play first base. The Phillies, on the other hand, have elected to retain their homegrown stars, and because they have done so at market rates, it has diminished their ability to add the kind of depth that might reduce the impact of the injuries and underperformance that have plagued them. Every dollar that a team pays Player X is a dollar it cannot afford to pay Player Y. Choosing to pay one player $24 million is the same as choosing not to pay two players $12 million each, or three players $8 million each. In other words, if you have $24 million available to upgrade your lineup, and you choose to spend it all on one player instead of two $12 million players, and that $24 million player suffers an injury or underperforms, then the impact to your team is probably going to be much greater than if one of the $12 million players suffers an injury or underperforms.
Of course, the biggest difference between the Phillies and the Cardinals is their farm systems. It is a lot easier to say goodbye to Albert Pujols when you have players like Allen Craig, Matt Adams and Matt Carpenter coming up through the system to replace him. Then again, one way to increase your supply of young talent is by saying goodbye to older players. In exchange for Pujols, the Cardinals received the No. 19 overall pick in the 2012 draft from the Angels. They used that selection on righthander Michael Wacha, who was a breakout star in the postseason last year and this year will provide St. Louis with a $500,000, middle-to-top-of-the-rotation starter. They also received a supplemental pick, which they used on outfielder Stephen Piscotty, currently one of the organization's top prospects.
Rather than The Problem, age is but one of many symptoms that the Phillies currently display.
On Twitter: @ByDavidMurphy