The biggest question ahead for the Phillies just might be the future of Jimmy Rollins who enters the off season a free agent.

by Clark Groome

At a critical point in Lionel Bart’s popular musical ”Oliver,” Fagan, the leader of the gang of London’s young pickpockets, sings about “reviewing the situation.”

It’s likely that the Philadelphia Phillies honchos, and especially general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., are doing just that.

The 2011 Phillies were, from the time last December when pitcher Cliff Lee was re-signed, viewed as the best team in baseball. Lee joined a starting staff that included Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels. Roy Oswalt, aces all, and the reliable, innings-eating Joe Blanton.

The regular lineup also had the power and the history to strike fear into the opposition, with the only question mark being in right field after Jayson Werth departed for oooooodles of money from the Washington Nationals.

As often happens over the 162-game regular season, things didn’t work out exactly as planned. Injuries to Oswalt and Blanton changed the starting rotation. The bullpen’s Brad Lidge, J.C. Romero, Danys Baez and Jose Contreras all had injury problems. None played the roles that were originally expected.

First baseman Ryan Howard, third baseman Placido Polanco, shortstop Jimmy Rollins, second baseman Chase Utley, center fielder Shane Victorino and catchers Carlos Ruiz and Brian Schneider all spent time, some of it significant, out of the lineup.

And then there were the surprises. On the negative side, no one – not the highly touted rookie Domonic Brown or the veteran Ben Francisco – was able to adequately fill the gap Werth left in right.

On the plus side, bullpen youngsters Michael Stutes and Antonio Bastardo were lights out for most of the second half of the season. Ryan Madson, for years one of the game’s premiere set-up eighth inning guys, turned into a strong, reliable closer.

Bench players Michael Martinez and Wilson Valdez did yeoman’s work filling in for injured regulars.

Perhaps the most impressive – and to some surprising – performances came from John Mayberry Jr. and Vance Worley.

Mayberry did a tremendous job defensively and offensively when called for in the outfield or at first base.

Rookie Worley, a/k/a Vanimal, filled in as a starting pitcher. His performance was spectacular. He posted an 11-3 record and a 3.01 ERA.

Then at the trade deadline Amaro got the delightful manchild Hunter Pence from Houston. Not only did he fill the void in right field, he brought an energy to the team and to the city that was a joy to behold.

Once happily ensconced in the playoffs, the conventional wisdom was that they had a clear road to the World Series. As anyone with a pulse now knows, that didn’t happen.

In the nail-biting five-game NLDS, the hot St. Louis Cardinals (a very good team about which nothing negative need be said) were the better team in games that mattered.

So, three years after winning the World Series, the Phils didn’t make it past the first round. They’re going backwards. Let’s review: 2007: won the East, lost to the blazing hot Colorado Rockies in three; 2008: beat the Milwaukee Brewers, Los Angeles Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays to capture their second World Series crown; 2009: beat the Colorado Rockies and Los Angeles Dodgers before losing to the New York Yankees in a six-game World Series; 2010: beat Cincinnati before losing to San Francisco in the National League Championship Series; 2011: well, you know, they went out in the first round.

The Phils are in a very similar position to what the Philadelphia Flyers were in after their 2010-2011 season, a season coming off an appearance in the Stanley Cup finals. It was widely felt to be one of the elitist of the elite and likely to return to the finals.

Didn’t happen, for lots of reasons, most notably the lack of a world-class goalie and a captain who could actually communicate with his team.

The result? General Manager Paul Holmgren made several surprising moves. Among them he traded Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, long said to be the team’s “future,” for some good, strong, young players along with enough salary cap space to sign premiere netminder Ilya Bryzgalov.

Interestingly, while fans and hockey people around the country were surprised, stunned even, by the moves, they were almost all positive about the changes.

So don’t be surprised if something similar – if for different reasons – happens to the Phillies this off-season. Rollins, Madson, Raul Ibañez, Lidge and Blanton all can test the free-agent market this year. Polanco’s injuries and the uncertainty about how long Utley’s tentative knees will hold out raise serious questions about their future, as does Ryan Howard’s heartbreaking Achilles tendon tear suffered on the last play in Friday’s loss to the Cards.

Oswalt and the Phils have to decide between them whether he wants to come back, or even stay in the game. And what do you do about the promising bullpen pitchers Bastardo and Stutes, both of whom faded as the season wore on?

We likely will see a very different Phillies team in 2012. But, as with the Flyers, good, smart people are in charge. Whatever moves are made may disappoint some fans, but I intend to view the Phillies’ glass as half full. (After all they’ll still at least have Halladay, Hamels and Lee as their top three starters.) The next few months should be fascinating, and likely filled with surprises.

A friend said to me Saturday at the gym that he was looking forward to Spring Training. I am too.

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