“We still have a good team. It’s not the same, by any means, but I’m not discounting our chances,” Rollins said solemnly on March 19, the day Utley left camp to see a specialist about his knees. “It’s going to be different. We didn’t have a great team in ’07 and we didn’t have a great team in ’08, but we found ways to win. We’re kind of back there.
“We’re going to have to find a way to execute, [place an] urgency on winning. Those things are going to be more important because we have lost a lot of pop.”
As the Phillies well know, their task is made tougher by the improvement below them in the NL East. While the Braves mostly stood pat, following a gruesome collapse that left them one win shy of a playoff berth, both the Miami Marlins and Washington Nationals made significant upgrades over the winter. The Marlins spent nearly $200 million on free agents ahead of their move into a gleaming new stadium, while the Nationals, who added all-star lefty Gio Gonzalez, are widely viewed as a rising power in the East.
“There’s no question the whole division got better,” Lee said. “Just look at the additions the Marlins made, and the way the Nationals are coming together. We’re focused on ourselves, doing whatever we can to get better, but you can’t deny what’s gone on in our division.”
Should the Phillies fail in 2012, it will inevitably prompt questions as to whether the championship window for this core group – the one largely responsible for these five straight division titles and the 2008 World Series championship — has slammed shut. Hamels will be a free agent after the season. Utley and Rollins will be 34 by next opening day. Howard will be 33.
Perhaps it will never come to that. Their history and track records say the Phillies should get the benefit of the doubt, until proven otherwise.
But as the Phillies surely understand, if the talent gap between themselves and the rest of the division was still as obvious and acute, such a thing would never have to be stated explicitly.