Phillies quickly have plunged to the depths of mediocrity

Old age and big contracts could make high-fiving in Philly a rare event. (Getty Images)

The Phillies, as fellow blogger C. Trent Rosecrans already has chronicled, will not win the NL East for the first time since 2006. Another consequence of the devastating series loss to the miserable Astros over the weekend is the Phillies now don't have much of a chance of winning the second NL wild-card berth

This steep decline from a year ago (when they won 102 regular-season games) raises a question: Will things get worse for the Phillies before they get better? The answer figures to be yes.

First, there's the reality that the Phillies are obviously not a very good team in the here-and-now. They're one game below the .500 mark, and their run differential is in negative territory. The Phillies have the oldest roster of position players and the fifth-oldest pitching staff in the league. There's also the opinion (mine) that the Nationals and Braves are each better poised to succeed in the near term. 

Help on the way? Not terribly much. Coming into this season, Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus referred to the Phillies' minor-leagues as "[a]n unbalanced, shallow system." That's largely the consensus. While the deadline trades of Shane Victorino, Hunter Pence and Joe Blanton certainly bolstered the Phillies' collection of prospects, it still isn't a system capable of churning out many impact talents, which is precisely what the Phillies need right about now -- cost-controlled, in-house players who put runs on the board or keep runs off it. 

The larger impediments to renewed success are the Phillies' payroll obligations. Consider they will enter the offseason with more than $131 million already committed. Stated another way, the contracts on the books for 2013 alone would give the Phillies the fifth-highest payroll in baseball this season.

Most cripping of all will be Ryan Howard's deal. He's locked up through 2018 (!) at an average cost of $22 million per season. Keep in mind that we're talking about a defensively challenged, 32-year-old first baseman who's hitting .229/.308/.413 this season.

Looking further into the future, the Phils are already on the hook for $96.5 in guaranteed salaries for 2014 and $85.5 million for 2015. That's a lot of squandered flexibility for a team that isn't particularly good but is particularly old. 

Even if the Phils did have budget flexibility, it seems we're entering a new era in which free-agent solutions won't be as plentiful as they once were. Teams with smaller payrolls have been locking up top arbitration or pre-arb talents, delaying their entries into the free-agent market until their post-prime seasons.

So those "feeder systems" for teams like the Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies are drying up. The Dodgers have addressed the approaching shift by taking on bad contract upon bad contract ("free agency via trade," if you will), but the Phillies don't figure to have the payroll room necessary to mimic such a strategy -- not that such a strategy is in any way advisable. 

So what's next? Unfortunately for fans of the franchise that has been one of baseball's best over the last half-decade, an uncharacteristic lack of relevance would seem to be next. That's what happens when a team is aging, mediocre and has too many resources already allocated. 

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