The Phillies Face an Age-Old Hurdle

published December 16, 2010

Let’s not concede the pennant to Philadelphia just yet, shall we?

The stunning Cliff Lee signing gives the Phillies one of the most imposing rotations in baseball history.  Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Cole Hamels, and Cliff Lee – R2C2, as one wag has dubbed them – form the best foursome since Greg Maddux joined John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, and Steve Avery in Atlanta in 1993.

Halladay won his second Cy Young Award last year, unanimously.  Lee won it in 2008, kept from unanimity by four votes cast for Halladay that season.  Hamels was the World Series MVP in 2008.  Oswalt was the MVP of the NLCS in 2005, and has ranked in the top five in the Cy Young voting five times.

It’s a balanced and accomplished group — two lefties, two righties – and among them are the men who rank first (Halladay), fourth (Oswalt), and seventh (Lee) in career winning percentage among active pitchers with 100 wins.  If pennants were determined by Strat-O-Matic cards, they’d be the team to beat.

Unlike game cards, however, players age.  And the Phillies are, to put it bluntly, an old team.

The Phils had the oldest lineup and the oldest pitching staff in the majors last year, as calculated by and weighted by playing time.  Giving 19 starts to 47-year-old Jamie Moyer didn’t help, but it’s still surprising to realize how advanced in age the everyday players are.

Shane Victorino, who turned 30 in November, was the youngest regular in the Philadelphia lineup.  Ryan Howard, now 31, saw his production fall sharply last season, and his is not a body type that ages gracefully.  Chase Utley’s 32nd birthday is tomorrow; he missed nearly a third of the season with a thumb injury.  Jimmy Rollins, 32, sat out half the season and hasn’t played like an All-Star since his 2007 MVP year.  Placido Polanco is 35, Raul Ibanez will be 39 in June, and Jayson Werth – the team’s leader in doubles, runs, walks, slugging, and OPS in 2010 – will turn 32 in a Washington Nationals uniform in 2011.  Even catcher Carlos Ruiz, in just his fourth season as a regular, will be 32 on Opening Day.

Potential Rookie of the Year candidate Domonic Brown will take Werth’s place and provide some youth and power, but this is a team almost certain to regress offensively, even in its hitter-friendly ballpark.

The pitching staff will be expected to pick up the slack and deliver a pennant during the team’s short and shrinking window of opportunity.  Here, too, however, the main opponents will be age and time as much as Atlanta and the Mets.

Halladay turns 34 in May, as will Oswalt in August, one day before Lee hits 33.  Hamels is the kid at 27; still, he’ll be older when the season begins than were any of the four Atlanta pitchers mentioned above when they started their tenure together in 1993.

It’s asking a lot to expect Halladay to repeat his extraordinary 2010 season.  Lee was super in the postseason, until the Giants beat him twice in the World Series.  Oswalt seemed like his old and dominant self in his two months with Philadelphia (7-1, 1.74), but he benefitted from an unusually low batting average on balls put in play against him — .227, as opposed to his career average of .303, according to  This is generally more a matter of luck than something he’ll be able to repeat.

Hamels may be the relative youngster, but he has a lot of mileage on him for a pitcher his age.  Even before reaching the majors he battled arm injuries, which resurfaced in his rookie year.  Nonetheless, he has now thrown over 900 innings for the Phils – nearly 1000 including the postseason.  In the free-agent era, there have been thirty-four pitchers who worked more than 900 innings in their first five seasons before age 26; while the list includes some encouraging names like Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, C.C. Sabathia, and John Smoltz, it features more red flags like Mark Mulder, Barry Zito, Fernando Valenzuela, Brad Radke, Kerry Wood, Dontrelle Willis, Steve Avery, Jim Abbott, Jeremy Bonderman, Ben Sheets…

While noting the age of the Phillies’ pitching staff, I should also point out that Brad Lidge turns 34 next week, and anyone who thinks he knows what to expect from him year to year is more optimist than analyst.  Ryan Madson, still the closer in waiting, is 30.

Since the dawn of free agency, there have been seven teams including the 2010 Phillies that had the oldest offense and pitching staff in the majors.  On average, the teams won nine fewer games the following year.  Some – like the 1992 Oakland A’s, the 1997 Baltimore Orioles, and the 2009 Houston Astros – were heading for a collapse after several years of success. Two Yankees teams, in 2004 and 2005, managed to hold off the decline for a bit longer.  (Detroit, in 1994, was on pace for 75 wins when the rest of the season was cancelled; the next year, the Tigers projected to 68 wins over 162 games.)

Only two of the previous six reached the playoffs in the following season.  None of them won a playoff series in that year, or the year after that, or for several years to come.

The Phillies will surely be the National League favorites in 2011.  History suggests the road to the championship is a tough one for a group of players with so much history behind them.

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