12 months ago today, the Philadelphia Phillies were 22 games over .500, 4.5 games up on the rival Atlanta Braves in the NL East race, and well on their way to a comfortable division title as 100-game winners.
What a difference a year makes.
On Independence Day in 2012, the Philadelphia Phillies have exhibited their own kind of independence from their division rivals, sitting alone in last place in the NL East with a 36-46 mark and in the midst of a six-game losing streak. The once dominant Phillies have lost their luster, and an 11-1 loss to the New York Mets on July 3rd may well be the low point in their season.
It’s all gone wrong for the Phillies thus far. Indestructible ace Roy Halladay hasn’t pitched since May 28th due to injury, and franchise cornerstones Chase Utley and Ryan Howard have played a combined five games this season.
At the Phillies’ expense comes the rise of two new potential NL East powers: the Mets and Washington Nationals. Separated by 3.5 games atop the division, the Nats and Mets have rose to prominence the old-fashioned way—by riding their homegrown talent.
In recent years, the Phillies have attempted to extend their dynasty through free agency, adding to former Cy Young winners Halladay and Cliff Lee to an already solid core group that led them to a World Series title in 2008.
While their signings earned them offseason plaudits, it hasn’t translated to success on the field yet for the Phillies, and the young talent in Washington and New York appear legitimate threats to end their streak of five consecutive NL East titles.
Halfway through the season, it’s far too early to discount the Phillies, especially with Halladay and Howard set to return shortly after the All-Star break. But the Nationals and Mets youngsters will certainly create a problem for them if they are to climb back into the division race.
Both of the teams atop the new-look NL East have paved their own unique path to legitimacy.
The Nationals have built through the draft, a rare strategy in baseball with the uncertainty of so many of the top-prospects. But when you’re lucky enough to add two once-in-a-lifetime talents in Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper in consecutive drafts, it just might work.
The two phenoms made a meteoric rise to Washington, as the Nationals eschewed the conventional wisdom of allowing their prospects to develop at the minor league level. So far it’s paid dividends, with Strasburg pitching at an All-Star level and Harper playing with energy only a 19-year-old could provide.
Strasburg and Harper have infused even more enthusiasm into a core that already included Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond, and Jordan Zimmermann, all of whom came through Washington’s minor league system.
Their rivals in New York have also depended on their homegrown talent, overachieving while often fielding a lineup that was more suited at Triple-A affiliate Buffalo than for the spacious confines of Citi Field.
Apart from David Wright, R.A. Dickey, and Johan Santana—all of whom have performed at an All-Star level—many of the 2012 Mets weren’t anywhere near a big league club when the Phillies were winning their World Series in 2008.
For at least half a season, the likes of Lucas Duda, Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Daniel Murphy, and Jonathon Niese have played the role of big league veterans, playing like they belong while exemplifying the toughness and grit that has earned the Mets relevancy for the first time since 2008.
The makeup of the Mets’ and Nationals’ rosters present a stark contrast to their divisional counterparts in Miami and Philly, both of whom have chosen to build by flexing their monetary muscles in free agency. But so far, the Marlins and Phillies are looking up at division rivals led by young men who were sitting in a classroom when their superstars were already earning big money on the big league diamond.
Their staying power atop the division is debatable, but there is no arguing that the Nationals and Mets have taken the path less traveled to NL East relevancy. They’ve proven that building from the ground up isn’t a lost art in baseball.
Ultimately, the prominence of their homegrown talent may be as much of a victory for the sport as it is for the franchises based in Washington and New York.