The 2011 Philadelphia Phillies were a great team. They won 102 games, but the season ended in the National League Division Series with Ryan Howard crumpled in pain along the first-base line after blowing out his Achilles while making the final out in a disappointing loss to the St. Louis Cardinals.
Little did the Phillies know that would be the symbolic end to a run of five straight NL East titles. They finished 81-81 in 2012 and then averaged 92 losses over the next four seasons. The criticism, of course, was lethal in the ensuing years, but there's a fair question to be asked: How do you know when your window of contention is about to end?
It’s easy to second-guess after the fact that the Phillies waited too long to retool, and there were certainly warning signs in 2011. Seven of the eight position-player regulars were 30 or older; two of the three aces were 32 and 34. But who blows up a 102-win team? Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels had gone a combined 50-23 with a 2.50 ERA. Even if the lineup was old, you had those three rotation stalwarts to make another run.
We know what happened. Halladay was done as an effective pitcher and made just 38 starts over the next two seasons. Lee did have two more good seasons before he was injured in 2014. Hamels was finally traded in 2015. The offense, second in the NL in runs in 2010, plummeted to 13th by 2013. Howard was untradable, and the front office hung on too long to Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley. The minor leagues were bare. The Phillies won't be contenders again until maybe 2018.
There are three franchises that sit in a precarious situation as we enter 2017, with a short window of contention before a dark period is likely to commence. The hope is a final blaze of glory and, eventually, a quick rebuild. I don't blame the three franchises for trying to push for another playoff run, but as with the 2012 Phillies, the possibility of impending disaster looms as well.
Think about the warning signs for a team in decline:
2. Lack of depth
3. Poor minor league system
4. Financial resources tied up or limited
These four issues have been blaring down on the Detroit Tigers like a 200-watt bulb for a few years now. They made four straight playoff appearances from 2011 to 2014 but missed the playoffs the past two seasons despite running one of the highest payrolls in the game. General manager Al Avila, who took over late in 2015, indicated at the start of the offseason that the Tigers needed to do some rebuilding, but the weak state of the AL Central instead has left them stuck in some freshly poured concrete with the same roster.
Their four best hitters in 2016 were Miguel Cabrera (age 33), J.D. Martinez (28, but a free agent after 2017), Ian Kinsler (34) and Victor Martinez (37). That group has aged well but is another year older. Free agents Justin Upton and Jordan Zimmermann had disappointing years. The rotation is shaky behind Justin Verlander and Michael Fulmer.
The long-term issue is that the Tigers already carry an inflexible payroll. Cabrera is signed through at least 2023; Upton makes $22 million a year through 2022; Zimmermann is owed another $92 million through 2020; Verlander is signed through 2019. The only big salary coming off the books will be Anibal Sanchez after 2017.
Meanwhile, the farm system hasn't produced a quality regular since Rick Porcello in 2009. (Nick Castellanos isn't there yet.) It is showing more potential than it has in years -- although still ranked just No. 24 overall by Keith Law.
The weird thing about the Detroit offseason, however, isn't that they decided to avoid a rebuild, but they haven't added anything to improve the team. Why would you expect an older team to improve the following season? Instead, the Tigers still have a gaping hole in center field, a mediocre bullpen, a weak bench and no team speed. Sure, Upton and Zimmermann could have better seasons, and maybe Daniel Norris or Matt Boyd emerges, but I don't see a 90-win team here.
The Seattle Mariners matched the Tigers with 86 wins in 2016, relying on the oldest lineup in the league (at 30.4 via Baseball-Reference.com's average age weighted by playing time). Even though Nelson Cruz turns 37 on July 1, Robinson Cano is 34, Felix Hernandez will be 31 in April and is coming off a down year, and Hisashi Iwakuma turns 36 in April with medicals that scared off the Dodgers last offseason, GM Jerry Dipoto is hoping that core can lead the team to its first playoff berth since 2001.
Dipoto inherited a tough situation last year. The farm system was a wreck, and other than Kyle Seager, all the stars were older and expensive. Ownership ran out the 10th-highest payroll in 2016, but it wasn't enough even though Cruz and Cano had monster seasons. Trader Jerry has made even more tweaks this offseason, improving depth by trading away the one top prospect in the system -- left-hander Luiz Gohara -- plus Taijuan Walker, former No. 1 pick Alex Jackson and other Grade C prospects for win-now talent in Jean Segura, Drew Smyly, Danny Valencia and Carlos Ruiz. He traded four years of control of Nate Karns for one year of Jarrod Dyson.
These were the right moves to make as the Mariners try to milk another playoff run out of Cruz, Cano and Hernandez, but the state of the farm system means there isn't any obvious young talent on the way to eventually supplement or replace the aging stars. The Mariners aren't locked into as many expensive, long-term contracts as the Tigers -- Cruz is signed through 2018, Felix through at least 2019, Seager through 2021 and Cano through 2023 -- but the window with this group is probably 2017 and 2018, and that's assuming Hernandez and Iwakuma stay healthy.
The Baltimore Orioles have made the playoffs three times in five seasons but are staring at two big financial headaches after the 2018 season. That's when Manny Machado and Zach Britton become free agents. Machado has shown no signs of being interested in signing an extension before free agency. And Britton is a Scott Boras client, so he'll likely head to free agency as well. The Orioles have run midlevel payrolls in recent seasons, so signing them isn't completely out of the question. But Machado will obviously be in great demand by the big-market franchises ... you know, like the Red Sox and Yankees, both of whom will have an opening at third base in 2019.
Beyond that problem, the Orioles have seen the best days of Adam Jones and J.J. Hardy. Chris Tillman is a free agent after 2017. They gave Chris Davis $161 million last offseason, and he hit an uninspiring .221/.332/.459. They're relying on a comeback from him and Mark Trumbo to produce 40-something home runs again.
The farm system? Law ranked it 25th in the majors, with only catcher Chance Sisco seemingly on the cusp of contributing in the majors. Given the shaky state of the rotation and a lineup where all the key guys except Machado and Jonathan Schoop are older than 30, there's no guarantee that the window hasn't already shut.