CLEARWATER, Fla. - The Phillies are favorites! Rejoice!

But remember: They have been here before, and recently.

They were picked as a dark-horse club to unseat the Braves atop the National League East after the arrival of Jim Thome, Kevin Millwood and David Bell in 2003 but closer Jose Mesa imploded and slugger Pat Burrell regressed.

They were picked as a clear favorite to win the East in 2004, when they added starter Eric Milton and closer Billy Wagner. But Wagner was hurt for half the season, Milton was a home-run machine in Citizens Bank Park, and manager Larry Bowa's caustic approach eroded morale.

So, 3 years later with only Burrell, shortstop Jimmy Rollins and starter Brett Myers remaining as principals, the Phillies again are the sexy choice to reach the playoffs. The talking points now: The great attitude, a lineup led by MVP Ryan Howard and MVP candidate Chase Utley and a starting rotation fronted by Myers but bolstered by Freddy Garcia and Adam Eaton.

Let's examine what could go right . . . and wrong.

1 Tom "Flash" Gordon stays healthy

The Phillies lost their closer for 3 weeks in August last season, and while they played well and won without him, they taxed other components of their bullpen that needed rest, and that cost the bullpen later. The Phillies will treat Gordon, 39, like a Faberge egg with hairline fractures in its base and hope for 40 saves.

Or . . .

1a Time catches up.

The stiffness Gordon has felt in his right forearm, elbow and shoulder off and on since he arrived in Philadelphia last year costs him 2 months or more. An already shaky 'pen could be abysmal without its keystone.

2 Ryan Howard makes another MVP run.

Howard hit a season-best .387 with nine homers and 20 RBI in September - the month teams began pitching around him. Best-case scenario: Whoever hits behind him - Pat Burrell, Wes Helms - makes teams pay for avoiding Howard.

Or . . .

2aHoward gets frustrated.

He was visibly, outspokenly perturbed that teams intentionally walked him late last season. He admitted to getting impatient, to swinging at pitches he would have let go. Enough impatience and he's suddenly a .270 hitter with 30 homers and 100 RBI . . . and 200 strikeouts.

3 The starting five rocks.

It is a rotation in which each pitcher is capable of winning 10 to 15 games with 200 innings pitched. Brett Myers and Cole Hamels have the stuff to keep their ERAs under 4. Every starter should be expected to see the seventh inning every start. Period.

Or . . .

3aThe starting five flails.

Newcomers Freddy Garcia and Adam Eaton haven't dealt yet with the unfairness of Citizens Bank Park. Cole Hamels never gave up homers until he reached the majors. Every one of the six potential starters comes with a caveat: Myers' inconsistency; Hamels' inexperience; Garcia's fading fastball velocity; Jamie Moyer's age (44); Eaton's injury issues; Jon Lieber's streakiness and conditioning.

4 Pat Burrell finds himself.

It should be comforting to the Phillies that Burrell no longer is the fulcrum of their lineup, clubhouse or future. The 3-year battle with a foot injury seems to have resolved itself. His left wrist doesn't bother him. His eyes might be weakening but, he and the team believe, not enough to warrant wearing corrective lenses. Burrell might never approach the .300 average, 40 homers and 140 RBI that seemed to be his annual potential, but .280, 30 and 110 certainly warrant the $27 million he'll make through 2008.

Or . . .

4aBurrell is what he is.

That is a .258 hitter who hits about 27 homers and drives in about 90 runs. Yes, that's close to the above-mentioned numbers, but the extra hits, homers and RBI hitting where Burrell hits - fifth or fourth - mean four or five more wins. That's huge.

5The front office rests.

Pat Gillick has pulled off some big deals since his arrival late in 2005. The team has bullpen problems unaddressed in the offseason, but that could be a blessing. Given the chance, Ryan Madson, Geoff Geary, Matt Smith and Joe Bisenius could solve bullpen problems for a long time, and cheaply.

Or . . .

5aThe front office gets fidgety.

Whatever bullpen benefit the Phillies realize if they trade Aaron Rowand would be negated by what they would lose. He ensures the clubhouse runs smoothly and is a field general in centerfield. Furthermore, Lieber (37 today) might find a lucrative career extension in the back of the bullpen. *