The Philadelphia Phillies returned to defend their World Series championship last season, marking the first time in the 126-year history of the franchise that the club appeared in back-to-back MLB championship series. And although the team fell two games shy of a repeat, the new 2010 season dawns with them once again as the favorites in the National League.

To actually make that ‘favorite’ status turn out to be a reality, to become the first National League team since the 1942-1944 St. Louis Cardinals pulled the trick during the years when talent was seriously reduced all across the Major Leagues during World War II, the Phils will have to navigate a mine field of tough opposition both in and out of their division.

First, the Phils faced a stiff test a year ago from both the improving Atlanta Braves and the always budget conscious Florida Marlins. Both of those clubs remain solid this year, and the Braves in particular look strong. They have a deep starting rotation, bullpen talent, some impact bats, and one of the best looking young offensive prospects in years in outfielder Jason Heyward. It would be an upset if Atlanta does not at least push the Phillies all season long, and contend for both the division and the Wildcard.

Around the rest of the National League, the St. Louis Cardinals, Milwaukee Brewers, Los Angeles Dodgers, San Francisco Giants, and Colorado Rockies lead the group of 7-8 teams who could emerge as serious threats for the pennant based on how they actually perform, whether they stay healthy, and what additions they might make during the course of the long season.

For the most part, however, there appear to me to be just two things that are likely to keep the Phils away from a 3rd straight trip to the World Series. Those two things would be injuries, which can crop up and add up and derail any team’s promising season, and themselves. Better teams than these Phillies have self-destructed by not performing up to their overall talent levels during a particular season or playoff series.

The main place that the self-destruction could begin, the team’s only apparent achilles heel entering the season, is in the bullpen. Closer and 2008’s perfection hero Brad Lidge has started the season on the DL after off-season surgeries. Joining him on the DL to open the year is lefty setup man J.C. Romero. With former #2 bullpen lefty Scott Eyre having retired and last year’s relief savior Chan Ho Park having left via free agency, the group that will try to nail down games at the end has plenty of questions to answer.

Can Ryan Madson hold down the closer duties with strong performances until Lidge returns, or in the long term if Lidge’s injury issues linger? Will newcomer Danys Baez thrive and succeed in the primary righthanded setup role? Can young lefty Antonio Bastardo show that he is finally ready to claim a Major League job? Can aged veteran Jose Contreras squeeze one more solid season from his arm? Is Rule 5 find David Herndon for real and a keeper? The reliable Chad Durbin is back, a good thing. Getting both Lidge and Romero back sooner rather than later would be an excellent thing. Not getting them back at all, or later, or having them become constant injury problems would make for a season of tough spots.

The starting rotation is in much better shape than their bullpen counterparts. That rotation is now led by one of the best pitchers on the planet in righthander Roy Halladay, one of the biggest free agent signing in Phillies history. Halladay is that rarest of finds, a genuine ace with a track record of big success in the prime of his career. Everyone remembers how good Cliff Lee was last season, but few seem to remember that the Phils did not acquire him until August. They will have Halladay around this year from Day One, which makes them much better right off the bat.

Cole Hamels went from NLCS and World Series MVP, hero, and budding superstar legend to an enigma seemingly overnight. He came to camp last season on a World Series hangover that produced a combination of nagging injuries and mental funk from which he never fully emerged, showing only glimpses of his true talent. Still, a close look at his overall numbers show that he was not far off. He was much more focused and determined, and worked harder, this past winter. There is no reason, especially with Halladay now manning that #1 slot, that Hamels should not emerge as one of the best lefties in the game once again.

Joe Blanton is an underrated #3 starter who eats up innings and gives the Phils a chance to win every start out. Unfortunately he will start the year on the DL as well. Out 6-8 weeks, the Phils will have to make due short in their rotation until his return in late May. With last year’s rookie sensation lefty J.A. Happ, ageless lefty Jamie Moyer, and born-again-hard Halladay protege Kyle Kendrick around the rotation should be at least capable of weathering that early challenge to it’s depth.

The Phillies lineup is one of the 3-4 best in all of baseball from top to bottom. They have power, speed, clutch veterans, and now newcomer Placido Polanco gets dropped into the #2 hole in the order and adds in a bit of the one thing that has been largely missing – patience. Polanco was here before the playoff years, and now is back to take over at 3rd base from the great-glove, light-hitting Pedro Feliz. Polanco won a Gold Glove the last couple years at 2nd for Detroit, and so provides some depth in case of some flukey major (bite my tongue) injury to Chase Utley.

To Polanco’s left in the shorstop hole, and directly in front of him in the batting order at leadoff is veteran spark plug Jimmy Rollins. The man affectionately known as ‘JRoll’ won the 2007 NL MVP Award and delivered once again in the clutch in last year’s NLCS vs. the Dodgers with a now-legendary 9th inning, 2-out, 2-strike hit in Game #4. Jimmy has set goals of 50 steals and 150 runs scored. Those would be career highs and appear slightly out of reach, but I for one would never say that Rollins cannot do something that he sets his mind to accomplish. If he even approaches those numbers, it will be phenomenal. Look for a big year out of the Phillies shorstop.

2nd baseman Chase Utley is steadily building what could end up as a Hall of Fame resume. The #1 draft pick, 15th overall, in the Phils 2000 draft, Utley took over the starting 2nd base job in 2005 after platooning in ’04. Since becoming the starter, an average season has produced a .300 batting average with 30 homeruns, 100 rbi, 110 runs scored, and 15 steals. He has received MVP votes each of those years, finishing in the top ten in voting 3 times. He has been an All-Star and won the Silver Slugger Award as the top offensive player at his position for 4 straight seasons. And going a step further, Utley has been acknowledged as a strong defensive player at 2nd base who has worked hard each year to get better there.

At 1st base, Ryan Howard seems like he has been smashing homeruns for a long time in the middle of the Phils batting order. However, 2010 will mark just his 5th full season as a starter. He was probably ready for a shot earlier in his career, but was blocked for a time by the imposing presence of Jim Thome at 1st base for the big league club. Since finally taking over the full-time duties for the 2006 season, Howard has put up an average season of 48 homeruns, 140 rbi, and 100 runs scored. He was the NL Rookie of the Year in 2005 when he wasn’t even the starter all  season, then followed that up by winning the NL Most Valuable Player in 2006. He has finished in the top five in MVP voting each of his full seasons, and is a 2-time All-Star and a Silver Slugger winner at the toughest position to gain those honors. All that, and last year he finally took his conditioning seriously, lost weight, and made himself much better defensively.

In the outfield, the Phillies group received rare public acknowledgement of their individual accomplishments a year ago when all three starters, Raul Ibanez, Shane Victorino, and Jayson Werth were selected for the NL All-Star team. Ibanez started out his first season with the team by providing offensive fireworks for more than two months, carrying the club while some of the other stars struggled. Victorino, a fan favorite as “The Flyin’ Hawaiian”, provides speed, an emotional spark, and Gold Glove defense to centerfield. In right, Jayson Werth finally had a full, healthy season and proved that he could produce big time. He is currently in his contract year, and a decision on whether to re-sign him just as he may be emerging into stardom will be the Phillies management team’s toughest decision in the coming months.

At catcher, the Phillies are blessed to have the steady Carlos Ruiz. The man affectionately known around the clubhouse and with the fans as “Chooch” has grown into a leadership role in handling the pitching staff as well as any catcher in the Majors. He has a strong, accurate throwing arm, and he stands up at his position defensively as well as anyone. He has also shown himself to be a clutch hitter at playoff time in the club’s recent run of post-season success. Brian Schneider, a former Phillie-killer, has joined the club as an experienced, talented backup backstop who would be capable of stepping into the starting role with ease should anything happen to Ruiz.

The rest of the bench in addition to Schneider is improved over last season’s bunch. Greg Dobbs and Ben Francisco return, providing a strong lefy/righty pinch-hitting tandem with pop in their bats and covering backup defensive duties at 3rd base, 1st base, and in the outfield. Juan Castro gives the Phils a solid option when they want to rest either Utley or Rollins in the middle infield. Ross Gload has been one of baseball’s top pinch-hitters in recent years, and gives the Phils another proven left-handed option off the bench.

The Phillies largely cleaned out their minor league system during the last two years in order to bring in first Cliff Lee to help nail down last season’s run to the pennant and World Series, and now Roy Halladay for the long term. Still, there is help down on the farm, and there are gems coming soon. Outfielder John Mayberry has shown that he is fully capable of holding down either a temporary starting role or a key bench role should the Phillies need him at some point. Pitchers Andrew Carpenter, Scott Mathieson, and Mike Zagurski, 1st baseman Andy Tracey, 3rd baseman Cody Ransom, outfielders Mayberry, Chris Duffy, and DeWayne Wise, catcher Paul Hoover, and infielder Wilson Valdez all have the type of AAA profile that could allow them an in-season promotion to help successfully fill-in the roster due to injuries. And top prospect outfielder Domonic Brown is the next Phillies offensive star-in-waiting, possibly ready by next season to take over a starting slot.

The manager has gone from buffoon to beloved, from a fish-out-of-water country hillbilly hick to a hometown fan favorite. Charlie Manuel was ready to be run out of town by the local radio talk show hosts and the fan base when the team suddenly surged past the slumping New York Mets and won a thrilling division race on the final day of the 2007 season. The club followed that up with just the 2nd World Series championship in it’s history in 2008, and then returned to the Series a year ago, cementing ‘Uncle Charlie’ as a beloved character. Pitching coach Rich Dubee and hitting coach Milt Thompson are both Manuel loyalists and solid baseball men. Add in the maestro of the Phillies strong running game in 1st base coach Davey Lopes, and the Phils get outstanding instruction, leadership, and experience from their management team.

When you factor in everything that is important in putting together a championship baseball team: power, speed, pitching talent, maturity, leadership, strong defense, winning experience, steady management, committed ownership, and a rabid fan base the Phillies have it all. Again, they are the 3-time defending NL East champs, the 2-time defending NL pennant winners, and have been to the World Series in back-to-back seasons for the first time in franchise history. There is little that realistically appears to be standing between them and making those numbers read 4-time NL East champs, 3-time NL pennant winners, and 2-time World Series champions, and that is exactly what this fearless prognosticator believes will happen.