PHILADELPHIA -- Built to win now, the Philadelphia Phillies crumbled without their biggest star players.
The Phillies' streak of five consecutive NL East titles ended and so did their run of nine straight winning seasons after an 81-81 finish that seemed like a decent accomplishment given their awful first half.
Injuries to Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Roy Halladay were too much for Philadelphia to overcome. The Phillies struggled to replace their Nos. 3-4 hitters who combined to miss 160 games to start the season, and sorely missed their No. 1 ace for a two-month stretch in the middle.
But can this down year be entirely blamed on injuries or are the Phillies trending downward?
"We have a talented group of guys and injury did play a part," general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said Thursday. "I don't like to use that as an excuse, but it is what it is. Be that as it may, we no longer are National League East champions. That goes to the Washington Nationals. We have to knock them off. We have a lot of work to do."
Jimmy Rollins, the former NL MVP, once proclaimed the Phillies were the team to beat in the division before they even began their title run. Then they went out and conquered the East, winning a World Series championship along the way. Rollins isn't ready to concede that the Nationals are the best team in the East, even though they finished with a major league-best 98 wins.
"With us being healthy, they're still second place," Rollins
That's a bold statement for sure. Rollins, however, has a point.
The Phillies played their best baseball during a 71/2-week stretch from July 31 to Sept. 21, going 31-17 to climb back into the postseason race after falling to a season-worst 14 games under .500 right after the All-Star break.
They were 13 games out of a wild-card spot when they traded two-time All-Star outfielders Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino hours before the non-waiver deadline, and were already looking ahead to 2013.
Then they started winning as Utley and Howard found their groove, Rollins got hot and others contributed. A seven-game winning streak had the Phillies within three games of St. Louis for the second-wild card berth on Sept. 13. After losing three of four to lowly Houston, the Phillies won four in a row to get to a season-best three games over .500. They again were three games behind the Cardinals with 11 to play only to lose seven of the last 11.
"We got ourselves in a pretty big hole early," pitcher Cliff Lee said. "It was too big of a hole to dig ourselves out of. We played really well in the second half, made our season definitely more respectable, but considering how bad we were in the first half, we were very fortunate to be where we were these past few weeks."
Since winning the franchise's second World Series title in 2008, the Phillies have taken one step backward each season. They lost to the New York Yankees in six games in the 2009 World Series, lost to the San Francisco Giants in six games in the 2010 NLCS, lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in five games in the 2011 NL division series.
Now after missing the playoffs entirely, they aim to get back in contention and make a serious run at another World Series before their aging stars are completely past their prime.
"There is urgency," Amaro said. "Our core guys are not getting any younger. The bottom line is this, if our players that we paid a great deal of money to do not perform next year, we're going to be in trouble. We need them to perform."
The Phillies owe Howard at least $105 million over the next five years. Utley has one year and $15 million left on his deal. Rollins has $33 million guaranteed over the next three seasons with an option for 2015. Lee will get at least $97.5 million for the next four years. Halladay makes $20 million next year. Cole Hamels signed a $144 million, six-year deal that begins in 2013.
Howard hit just .219 and struck out 99 times in 260 at-bats. But he also drove in 56 runs in 71 games. Utley batted just .256, the fifth straight year his average declined. Rollins hit .250, though he had a team-high 23 homers and 68 RBIs out of the leadoff spot.
Lee had a rough season, going just 6-9. But he had a 3.16 ERA and didn't get much run support. Halladay was 11-8 with a 4.49 ERA that was the second-worst in his career. Hamels went 17-6 with a 3.05 ERA.
"Ryan Howard has to perform. Chase Utley has to perform. Roy Halladay has to come back and perform," Amaro said. "And we have to get that performance out of guys like (Carlos Ruiz), Hamels and Lee. If we don't get their performance, it's going to be troublesome for us. We rely on those guys to perform. We think they will. We're hopeful they're healthy. We need to support them better."
Amaro has several holes to fill. Manager Charlie Manuel can pencil just four regulars into his lineup right now: Howard, Utley, Rollins and Ruiz. The Phillies need a third baseman and have to figure out who will play in the outfield.
Domonic Brown, a former untouchable prospect, hit .235 in 187 at-bats so he's not guaranteed a starting spot. Darin Ruf led the minor leagues with 38 homers and hit three more in 33 at-bats with the Phillies, but he still has to learn to play left field in the Venezuelan winter league.
The Phillies likely will target potential free agents B.J. Upton of Tampa Bay or Michael Bourn of Atlanta. Trading Pence gave Amaro the financial flexibility to add a high-priced player if Philadelphia chooses that route.
"There are people there who might help us," Amaro said. "That said, there may be some people on the trade market that may be better for us. The free-agent market overall on the offensive side is not fantastic, but that doesn't mean we can't get better."
Either way, Amaro has a tough task ahead.