During their 102-win march to the National League East crown, when they bagged more wins than any team in baseball with what might be the best rotation in the game, the Phillies' return to the World Series for the third time in four years seemed inevitable. But now that their season is over - having ended with a 1-0 loss to the Cardinals in Game 5 of the National League Division Series on Friday night - they've got enough questions to answer that the division could start to look more interesting in the next few years than it has in the past five.
Philadelphia Inquirer beat writer Matt Gelb laid all the Phillies' issues out in great detail here, but the first one to be considered is obviously the health of Ryan Howard, who might have torn his Achilles heel stumbling out of the batter's box on the last play of the game. Howard, who starts his five-year, $125 million deal next season, could begin the year on the disabled list. And in any case, he's going to be 32 in November.
The Phillies also have to figure out what they're going to do with Roy Oswalt, who has a $16 million club option for 2012. Jimmy Rollins, Raul Ibanez and Ryan Madson are all free agents, and Placido Polanco is entering the last year of his deal. The Phillies have kept their core together betting on another World Series run; now that they didn't get it, they're starting to look old.
And if they opt to replace some of their key players with younger options, they could open the door, at least slightly, for another team in the NL East. The Braves would be the logical challenger, but Chipper Jones and Derek Lowe are old, and Jason Heyward is coming off a dreadful second season. The Marlins could be better than 72 wins, but they have to figure out how many of their starting pitchers are actually any good, and they don't know what they'll get from Josh Johnson or Hanley Ramirez after both players missed time with shoulder injuries. And the Mets have some decent young pieces, but they're likely to lose Jose Reyes this winter.
Where does that leave the Nationals? Well, they've got plenty of reasons to be feeling good heading into 2012, with Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann set to be in the same rotation for the first time and the prospect of getting Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche for a full season. And don't think they haven't been timing their spending push for this year, when the Phillies were set to hit a crossroads and many of the Nationals' young players would finally be ready. It's likely the Nationals will be aggressive again in free agency this year - though that might not mean a blockbuster deal like the one they gave Jayson Werth last year. But they've got every reason to head into the winter hunting.
Why shouldn't they? The two teams above them in the division will probably still have better pitching staffs, and the Nationals still need to solve their problems at the top of the lineup. But with a few moves this winter, the Nationals could go into 2012 with legitimate darkhorse buzz, in a division that might be more competitive than it's been in a long time.