The decline of the Phillies

It's uncertain what the Phillies can expect from Chase Utley and Ryan Howard in 2012. Jeff Curry/US Presswire

It's been six seasons since the Philadelphia Phillies finished anywhere other than first in the National League East. Last year, they led the major leagues with 102 wins, their highest total during their recent run of success. During the winter, they signed Jonathan Papelbon, the top closer available on the free-agent market, and watched their jilted former closer, Ryan Madson, blow out his elbow before he could throw a meaningful pitch for a competitor. Their starting rotation will be headlined by Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels, who project to be three of the 15 most valuable pitchers in baseball. Their lineup will be bolstered by a full season from Hunter Pence.

On the surface, most signs point to continued success. But the Phillies' competitive window may be closing quickly.

There are six Phillies ranked between 51 and 100 on ESPN's list of the top 500 players for 2012, but there are four longtime members of the club who stand out from that group: Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino. That quartet has been at the heart of Philly's NL East ascension, but the problem is that all four are age 31 or older, and those rankings are likely lower than they would have been in recent years. It's conceivable that none of them will be ranked in that range or in uniform for the Phillies in 2013.

According to Nate Silver, "the steepest part of the aging curve -- when a hitter experiences the most manifest decline in his abilities -- tends to come between ages 32 and 34." It can be devastating enough to an offense when two or three hitters enter this period of accelerated decline at the same time. The Phillies are entering it as a team.