Ryan Howard? Love the homers, big fella.

Chase Utley? He'd have been right at home on the 1980 or 1993 Phillies.

Jimmy Rollins? Best combination of offense and defense since, who, Schmitty?

All of them are very good reasons to go out to Citizens Bank Park to watch the Phillies this year. All of them have a chance to help make this a special season. But when you're trying to figure the Phillies' chances of winning the National League East and going to the World Series, you don't start with Howard, Utley and Rollins.

You start with Myers and Hamels, Eaton and Moyer, Garcia and Lieber.

If you don't think pitching is everything in 2007, then we offer 2006 as evidence.

Howard hit 58 home runs and was the NL most valuable player. Utley established himself as the best second baseman in the league, started the All-Star Game, and put up terrific numbers. It is no knock on Rollins to say he contended with the Mets' Jose Reyes for the honor of best shortstop in the NL; Reyes is that good.

It wasn't easy to waste all that, but the Phillies managed. They finished 12 games behind the Mets in the division and three behind the Dodgers for the wild card.

It's the pitching. Period. It affects everything. When the pitching isn't good enough, the manager takes a public beating. When the pitching isn't good enough, perceived flaws in players like Pat Burrell and Bobby Abreu become enormous eyesores. That's because, while a different pitcher comes up short every day, Charlie Manuel and his position players are out there every game, taking the heat.

Enthusiasm over this team, scalding hot when pitchers and catchers reported in February, has cooled a bit over six underwhelming weeks of spring training. Nevertheless, the Phillies are still way ahead of where they were this time last year.

Jon Lieber is the human mile marker. In 2006, he was the starter on opening day. In 2007, he's the No. 6 starter, bound either for the bullpen, for another team in a trade or for a placeholder spot until Freddy Garcia is ready to rock.

That represents major progress.

If Lieber, currently on the disabled list, is unhappy about being odd man out, he should watch videotape of his performance on opening day last April. Lieber looked embarrassingly unprepared to pitch a big-league game in a 13-5 loss that got the Phillies off to their customary slow start.

But it was June that killed the 2006 Phillies. Lieber was out, having hurt himself trying to field a baseball. At various points, the rotation included journeyman Cory Lidle, scared rookie Gavin Floyd, talented rookie Cole Hamels, converted reliever Ryan Madson and double-A call-up Scott Mathieson.

The Phillies went 9-18. If they had gone even 14-13, one lousy game above .500, they would have been in position to win the wild card.

Instead they buried themselves, all because of the starting pitching.

So GM Pat Gillick not only pulled the plug on 2006 by deciding to trade Abreu, David Bell and Lidle - he famously wrote off 2007, too. Going with young pitching, he reasoned, meant being patient.

Then Hamels showed signs of being a true prodigy. Brett Myers pitched like an ace-in-the-making after his midseason misbehavior in Boston. Gillick acquired the veteran Jamie Moyer, who re-signed with the Phillies in the off-season. Then he acquired Garcia and Adam Eaton.

It's actually kind of hard to remember a Phillies rotation that looked this good from ace to No. 5 starter. Things can go wrong - Garcia's biceps flare-up would be an example - but based on potential, there is not a better starting staff in the National League.

Three of these starters - Myers, Hamels, Garcia - could win between 15 and 20 games. Moyer gives his team a chance to win every time he pitches. Eaton is admittedly a question mark - he has been hindered by injuries the last couple of years - but it's better having that question mark at the back end of the rotation than at the front. Besides, Lieber could wind up providing the answer, if necessary.

Rollins, bless his heart, drew a lot of attention for declaring the Phillies the "team to beat" in the NL East this year. If that seemed a bit premature, maybe it was.

But Rollins' confidence comes from two good, solid sources. He knows how well the Phillies played as a team in August and September, and he knows how big a difference a big-time starting rotation would mean to that team. His original boast, remember, came after the acquisition of Garcia and Eaton.

Rollins knows. He could have another great year, Howard could lead the league in homers, Utley could win the batting title - and it will all mean very little if the pitching isn't better.

Post a question or comment for Phil Sheridan at http://go.philly.com/asksheridan. Or by email: psheridan@phillynews.com.