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Sun Setting on Phillies' Star Players

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Kevin Noonan
Kevin Noonan
Kevin Noonan has covered and commented on the Delaware sports scene for more than 30 years, everything from amateur recreation leagues and high schools to local colleges and the Philadelphia professional teams. He’s been voted Delaware Sportswriter of the Year multiple times and currently covers the Philadelphia Eagles for CBSSports.com and teaches creative writing courses at Wilmington University.

There have been a few ripples, but no real big splash. The Phillies have added some good players who will fill some big holes, but there are no new superstars coming to South Philadelphia this season and that’s a shame — it would have been fun to watch Josh Hamilton patrolling the outfield for the Phillies and knocking the ball out of hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Park.

But even if the Phillies had somehow persuaded Hamilton to take a walk on the wild side and play in a passionate sports town like Philly, it wouldn’t have mattered. And that’s because only one thing does matter this coming baseball season – the play of The Big Three.

You know who they are – Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, the players who carried the Phillies in their World Series years. Sure, they couldn’t have done it without valuable secondary players like Shane Victorino and Jayson Werth and solid bench players like Matt Stairs and Geoff Jenkins. But The Big Three make up the hub around which the rest of the team revolves. They’re also the reason the Phillies have been sliding downhill the last couple of years and are no longer considered one of baseball’s elite teams.

In 2008, the Phillies won the World Series even though their starting pitching wasn’t nearly as good as it is today. And The Big Three had 372 of the Phillies’ 799 runs (47 percent), 309 of their 762 RBIs (40 percent) and 92 of their 214 home runs (43 percent).

Last year, the Phillies finished 81-81 and in third place and Utley and Howard missed much of the season with injuries. And The Big Three had 178 of the Phillies’ 684 runs (26 percent), 167 of their 659 RBI (25 percent) and 48 of their 158 home runs (30 percent).

So, in total number and in percentages, The Big Three were the difference in the Phillies being very good or very average.

So, it’s clear that the Phillies won’t return to their former glory days unless The Big Three does the same, or at least comes close. And that probably won’t happen, simply because the careers of Rollins, Utley and Howard are in decline. That tends to happen when you get older and those little nagging injuries start to take their toll, not to mention the bigger ones with which Howard and Utley had to deal last season.

Of course, the Phillies also need a big bounce-back year from pitcher Roy Halladay and they need All-Star seasons from starters Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee and reliever Jonathan Papelbon. And there’s a good chance they’ll get all of that. Halladay had an off year in 2012 as he battled shoulder problems, but that’s the first time he’s been slowed by an injury like that and his numbers in 2011 were pretty good – 19-6 with an ERA of 2.35. So, Halladay is just one season removed from being a great player and it’s not hard to envision him returning to form.

But The Big Three, that’s another matter. They were starting to slide even before Howard ruptured his Achilles tendon and even before Utley’s knees started to deteriorate. Their statistics have been going south for a few years now and it’s hard to see that reversing itself – after all, Father Time eventually strikes out everybody, whether you’re Chase Utley or Willie Mays.

That doesn’t mean The Big Three can’t have a good season, even good enough to put the Phillies back in the thick of things. And that’s all they can ask for right now. The Phils used to dominate their division, but those days are over. The Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves moved ahead of them last season and those guys aren’t going anywhere, except maybe back to the playoffs.

However, the Phillies should be competitive and the moves made so far by general manager Ruben Amaro will help them. The Phillies didn’t land a great player, but guys like Young and Rivera and ace set-up man Mike Adams – who will have the biggest impact of any of the free agent signings — will improve this team. And, who knows, maybe this is the year Dominique Brown or John Mayberry breaks out and has an All-Star season.

Plus, the Phillies still have those three aces on the mound, which means they should be in almost every game and that’s a great place to start.

But it’s also a fact that none of that will matter if The Big Three doesn’t come up, well, big. So, even though most of the focus for the next couple of months will be on the new players the Phillies have acquired, it’s their three longest-tenured players who will decide whether the Phillies are still a team to be reckoned with.

Contact Kevin Noonan at knoonan32@aol.com

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