Astros' Garner expects wide-open race

Garner expects wide-open race

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Call it competitive balance or call it parity, but don't pass it off as the usual Spring Training optimism. This much is clear from Spring Training, 2007 -- the overwhelming majority of baseball's 30 teams have good reason to see themselves as postseason contenders.

In the National League, 15 of 16 teams have legitimate reasons to believe that they will be nothing less than highly competitive. The lone exception would be the Washington Nationals.

This much hope and this much talent spread around in this manner must be a good thing for the game, right?

"No," says Houston Astros manager Phil Garner with a grin. "I'd rather see us be a dynasty."

The Astros, 2005 National League champions under Garner's guidance, will once again be solidly in the hunt. But "a dynasty?" Not them or anybody else in the National League at the moment. Garner knows it, and that's the point.

There are still obvious haves and have-nots among baseball franchises, but with the game in an era of general prosperity, with revenue sharing and the luxury tax spreading the prosperity around more than in the past, more teams have more of a shot than ever. Garner, an astute observer of all facets of the game, acknowledges, after hoping for his own dynasty that "parity is a good thing."

"The game must be prosperous," Garner said on Tuesday at Osceola County Stadium, where the Astros lost to the New York Mets, 7-2. "When the players and the owners decide not to go to war, that's got to be a sign of good things.

"You've got a lot of teams that are going to be able to compete. I don't know how to tie it all together, but it seems that the owners have spent a lot of money, and it's not been just one team. Yes, the Cubs spent a lot of money, but we spent some money, other teams spent some money, it's not everybody piling up on one team. I don't know if it's a trend or not, but some pretty good players are being spread around."

For instance, in Houston's own NL Central, in a recent era, the Cardinals, the Astros, and, in their better seasons, the Cubs, were in the top tier, and the Pirates, Brewers and Reds were in a distinctly lower category. Things are no longer that clear-cut. The manager's discussion of the chances of various NL teams brings that view into clear focus.

"I don't know that Milwaukee can win the division, but they can sure keep you from winning it," Garner says. "I actually think that Milwaukee's going to be pretty competitive. I like their overall pitching staff, but [Ben] Sheets has not really done what he should do. If Sheets steps up and pitches like a No. 1 and wins 18 ballgames for them, then they've got a legitimate ballclub there. But he's just never been able to stay healthy.

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"Pittsburgh's going to be a tough club. I think picking up the first baseman from Atlanta [Adam LaRoche] will really help them. They've got some good arms in the bullpen, but I think [Mike] Gonzalez was really strong and that may hurt them, not having him down there [after a trade with Atlanta].

"I don't know what Cincinnati's going to do. I like [Aaron] Harang, I like Bronson Arroyo, I don't know what their bullpen is going to do. But we had beaten up on them for the past couple of years, and then last year we didn't. They came on and you could see them grow up a little bit. They played us tough and we couldn't beat up on them anymore.

"What I think St. Louis has done so very well in the last few years, they really beat up on the teams they're supposed to beat up on. That's where they get their big spreads, and then they play .500 or thereabouts against everybody else and that's how they've won. We essentially had been sneaking into the Wild Card the same way. We'd beat up on Cincinnati a little bit, beat up on Pittsburgh a little bit, and then play at .500 against some of these other teams. It may not happen that way this year. We were 13-3 against Pittsburgh last year. I don't know what we're going to do against them this year. If you can't get 15 games above .500 in your own division, where are you going to pick it up? You're not playing the East or the West that many times."

The Cardinals are the World Series champions. The Cubs won the offseason spending derby, and signed the biggest single impact player available, Alfonso Soriano. But the Cardinals have a starting rotation in transition. And the health and well-being of the Cubs' pitching is a perennial issue.

"You can't discount the Cardinals in my viewpoint," Garner says. "They've got a true No. 1 [starter], they've got a closer, and then they've got a couple superstars in that lineup. Any time you've got [Albert] Pujols, [Scott] Rolen, [Jim] Edmonds, they're going to be tough.

"The Cubs, we'll have to see how well they spent their money. I mean, they spent $300 million. They can beat you up with the bats, that's for sure. Will the pitching be good enough? Who knows?

"I think bringing in Lou Piniella as manager was a good deal. Piniella might be the right kind of personality. Maybe he can outdo the goat. I personally have always enjoyed managing against Piniella. He's a good manager and he's a character. The Cubs could be tough, but it's an interesting club. When they're hot, they just kill you and you can't beat them. But when they're cold, they can't beat you. It always has gone that way for me, playing against them."

Looking at the other two NL divisions, the view is much the same. There are no teams that appear to be overwhelming locks. There are no teams that are without question marks heading into the season. But almost all of the teams have enough talent to generate legitimate hope for their chances in 2007.

The Mets were the NL's best regular-season team in 2006 with 97 victories, but their rotation is unsettled. They could win the East again, but it would be difficult to project them running away and winning by 12 games as they did last season.

"The Mets can slug you offensively," Garner says. "They have a well-balanced lineup. They hit from the left side, they hit from the right side. They have speed, they have power. And they have clutch. What else do you need? [Jose] Reyes might even get a lot better. [David] Wright might get a lot better. But their pitching is going to be a big question."

The Florida Marlins are another example of the current trend toward competitive balance. Last season the Marlins were selected for oblivion by many preseason prognosticators. Instead, this young team, with baseball's lowest payroll, developed much more rapidly than expected. Now it must be considered, rather than dismissed.

"Everybody says they're a young team, but they just play good," Garner says. "I like their team. They'll battle you. I would say the same thing that I would say about Pittsburgh and maybe Milwaukee in our division: I don't see them winning a pennant, but they can keep you from winning."

And here's another switch in the usual order of things: The Atlanta Braves, after winning 14 straight division titles, fell far to 79-83 last season. What is their status now?

"I'm picking the Atlanta Braves to be the surprise team of this season," Garner says. "I think their pitching is MUCH improved and I like their young hitters. I like [Jeff] Francoeur. I like [Brian] McCann, the catcher. What did they have, almost 30 blown saves last season? They get just half of those and they're in the pennant race. I think they're going to surprise people. [Mike] Hampton has to come back and be healthy. Their bullpen is improved, I think. [Bob] Wickman will help them a great deal and Gonzalez will be good."

The Braves as a "surprise team" is a novel notion, because for 14 seasons, they were the one team that allowed for no surprises at all. But as the 2007 season beckons, that's baseball; wide open for crowded competition and new developments.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.