CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Most of the faces have remained for the Phillies in 2007, as the National League's most productive lineup is again ready to punish opposing pitchers.It starts with reigning NL Most Valuable Player Ryan Howard, who swatted 58 homers and drove in 149 RBIs, while hitting .313. The rest of the team will succeed or fail on his shoulders, though Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Pat Burrell will be counted on for a good deal of support. With Jamie Moyer returning, Adam Eaton signing and Freddy Garcia arriving via trade to a rotation that includes Brett Myers and Cole Hamels, the Phillies love their rotation. The bullpen is still a concern, and Aaron Rowand or Jon Lieber could be used to acquire a reliable setup man for closer Tom Gordon. Team strength: The Phillies led the NL with 865 runs scored in 2006, and they were third in homers. With the NL MVP in Howard and All-Star Utley leading the way, Philadelphia is expecting the same. The team will employ the aggressive baserunning and hard-charging style it showed over the 2006 season's final two months, with players like Shane Victorino holding prominent roles. While it's going to be difficult for Howard to top his 58 homers and 149 RBIs from his 2006 MVP season, he's going to provide plenty of thunder. Howard, Utley and Rollins are guarantees to score 100 runs apiece, assuming they stay healthy. If Wes Helms or Burrell can step up and provide some protection for Howard in the five hole, pitchers won't be able to avoid Howard with the regularity they did in September. Rollins sets the table again, and is no slouch himself, having hit a career-high 25 homers last year and coming to camp in the best shape of his career -- not that he was ever out of shape. But make no mistake, the offense revolves around Howard.
An up-close look at the club as we approach Opening Day
Achilles' heel: The bullpen remains as big a question mark as it did when Spring Training began. Gordon will close as long as he's healthy, but it's sketchy after that. Antonio Alfonseca has looked good in camp and is the likely setup man, with Geoff Geary, Ryan Madson and Matt Smith filling needs in the seventh and eighth innings. General manager Pat Gillick wants to improve the group, making a trade likely. Rowand and/or Lieber are the team's most marketable commodities, and the team may have no choice.Top newcomer: Garcia brings more durability and postseason success to an already deep and experienced rotation. The right-hander won 17 games last season, to go with one other 17-win year (1999) and an 18-win campaign (for a 2001 Seattle team that won 116 games). He's logged at least 200 innings in seven of his eight seasons. His velocity has been down around 88-90 mph this spring, causing some concern, though Garcia said he's not worried. Ready to make The Leap: Hamels has it all. A fastball with movement, a devastating changeup, intelligence and guts. The confident lefty isn't afraid to fail and expects to win 20 games and a Cy Young. Though that might not happen this year, it should happen at some point. He's a future ace pitching out of the No. 2 spot. There has been some concern about his 2006 workload -- 80 1/3 more innings than in any of his three professional seasons, and that will have to play out.
On the hot seat: It might not be fair, but manager Charlie Manuel knows a fast start is crucial to him staying skipper. A third straight lackluster April and June similar to 2006's 9-18 record might doom Manuel. Bench coach Jimy Williams and first-base coach Davey Lopes have managed in the big leagues, and Manuel is in the final year of his contract.
You can bank on: As amazing as Howard's first year-and-a-half were in the Majors, Utley and Rollins are sure things to produce. Rollins has been productive since 2001, though he has to flourish in April, too. Utley has just begun to scratch the surface, and his level, compact swing won't permit slumps. Each has had a hitting streak of at least 35 games, so how's that for consistency?
Litmus test: If the rotation stays healthy and the bullpen finds some answers, the Phillies should be one of the best teams in baseball. If not, another frustrating season could be on deck.Games you don't want to miss:
April 9, 11-12 at New York: Rollins proclaimed the Phillies the team to beat in the NL East, and the division champs respectfully disagreed. The Mets' home opener on April 9 should provide some early excitement. April 16-17 vs. New York: Part II of the rivalry will take place at Citizens Bank Park. June 1-4 vs. San Francisco: Barry Bonds won't likely be knocking on Hank Aaron's door by then, but he could be pulling up in front of the house. This also could be Bonds' final trip to Philadelphia. June 11-13 vs. Chicago: Interleague Play will allow for Jim Thome's return to Philadelphia for the first time since being dealt after the 2005 season. June 22-24 at St. Louis: It's always nice to see Howard play, period, but returning to his hometown as the reigning NL Most Valuable Player might make the journey extra special. Sept. 14-16 at New York: Somehow you just know that this three-game set at Shea Stadium will have playoff implications.
Ken Mandel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.