PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Chase Utley found a small, silver lining to the Philadelphia Phillies' dismal season.
"If there is a bright spot, it gives us an opportunity to get to work a little bit sooner," Utley said following Sunday's season finale. "We can start improving next week. We get a four-week head start."
There will be no October baseball in Philadelphia for the second straight year, so the Phillies can start planning for 2014 now. They finished 73-89 for their first losing season since 2002. Perhaps a new trend has started after fans became accustomed to the postseason.
The Phillies won five straight NL East titles from 2007-11, including two NL pennants and the 2008 World Series championship. But after going 81-81 last year, they were abysmal this season.
Charlie Manuel was fired in August. Pitching Rich Dubee was let go Monday. More changes could be coming soon.
"This isn't the situation you envision going into spring training," Utley said.
Utley, the five-time All-Star second baseman, isn't going anywhere. He signed a three-year deal instead of opting for free agency and will try to be part of the turnaround under new manager Ryne Sandberg.
General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. isn't planning on a rebuilding project. He's looking to get the Phillies back in contention next year.
It won't be easy.
The Phillies have an aging, high-priced group of players that make it difficult to make sweeping roster changes. They're hoping the older core — Utley, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and maybe Carlos Ruiz if he returns — have another run left in them. They'll also be counting on some of their talented young players to step up.
Domonic Brown took a major step forward this season, leading the team with 27 homers, 83 RBIs and going to the All-Star game. Third baseman Cody Asche showed he could possibly be a cornerstone player. Darin Ruf, Cesar Hernandez and Freddy Galvis proved they belong in the big leagues, at least as role players.
"I'm looking forward to next year," Sandberg said. "I think there are some solid pieces here. So when everything's pieced together, and with some additions, I don't think we're that far off."
Howard could be a big part of the solution. If the 2006 NL MVP comes back healthy and somewhat resembles the slugger he was before suffering an injury two years ago, it'll significantly improve an offense that was third-worst in the NL with an average of 3.8 runs per game.
Rollins had the worst offensive season of his career, but may benefit from being around Sandberg. Utley had his best year since 2009 and there's no reason to indicate he can't duplicate it.
"I think that'll be for the betterment for himself and the team as we go forward," Sandberg said of Rollins' changing his plate approach.
The team's biggest need on offense is a right-handed power hitter. That'll be Amaro's top priority along with re-signing Ruiz. He'll also need to improve an awful bullpen and find depth in the rotation.
Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels are the only two starters assured spots. The pitching staff had a 4.32 ERA, second-worst in the NL. Roy Halladay will be a free agent and the two-time Cy Young Award winner is hardly a $20 million pitcher anymore. He struggled in six starts after returning from shoulder surgery, but Amaro wants to bring him back at a reasonable price.
"I don't know what the future is going to hold, but I want to go somewhere that wants me and somewhere that is going to have a shot," Halladay said.
"I hope that's here."
NOTES: In addition to not renewing Dubee's contract, the Phillies replaced Dong Lien, the team's major league strength and conditioning coordinator. Paul Fournier takes over after serving in that role for the organization's minor league system. Lien was offered another position within the organization.
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