By 2012, Phillies could be ripe for the taking in NL East

When Ryan Howard took a called third strike on Saturday night, ending Game 6 of the National League Championship Series and denying the Philadelphia Phillies a chance at their third straight trip to the World Series, it closed the book on a year where the team made no shortage of bold moves to stay atop the National League.

Those moves, of course, came at quite a cost; the Phillies unloaded six players to get Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt, whom they will pay a combined $36 million next year. The Halladay deal caused Philadelphia to part with Cliff Lee, whose postseason for the Rangers in 2010 has been as stellar as his playoff performance with the Phillies in 2009. And everything they’ve wrapped up in their pitchers could necessitate changes in the core of position players they’ve developed over the last five years,

Outfielder Jayson Werth, a free agent after this season, isn’t expected back. Raul Ibanez and Brad Lidge are free agents after next season. So is shortstop Jimmy Rollins, who’s still beloved in Philadelphia but is coming off a disappointing, injury-plagued season. Oswalt has an option in 2012, and if he isn’t retained, four key players from this year’s Phillies team could be gone by 2012.

That, not coincidentally, is the year the Nationals expect to be ready to compete in the NL East. They’ll have Stephen Strasburg back by then, and depending on how he develops, Bryce Harper could be knocking on the door of the majors by then (Harper, by the way, went 2-for-4 in the Arizona Fall League on Saturday night, DHing for the Scottsdale Scorpions in their win over Phoenix).

How the Nationals handle themselves this winter, then, will be interesting to watch. Their much-publicized desire to add a top-end starter would almost have to be filled this winter, since there won’t be many aces available next year unless CC Sabathia opts out of his contract or the Cardinals decide not to pick up Adam Wainwright’s option.

And if they get a temporary solution at first base this winter, they could make a play for Adrian Gonzalez or Prince Fielder, either by trade next summer or with a big contract next winter. It might make more sense to chase one of those players than to make a long-term commitment to Adam Dunn or a lesser free agent this winter. Both Gonzalez and Fielder would be expensive, but if the Nationals can add a pitcher this offseason and take a run at one of the two next year, they’d be in line for a surge in 2012.

All that, obviously, is several moves away. But the point is, the Nationals’ pre-2011 offseason needs to be viewed with 2012 in mind. Catching the Phillies next year still looks to be difficult, and there’s no telling how Philadelphia will set itself up for 2012. The gap between the Phillies and Nationals, though, could get a lot smaller before 2012. That’s the season the team’s braintrust is most optimistic about at this point, and with the uncertainty ahead of the Phillies, it could benefit the Nationals to build with 2012 in mind.