Encore? Champion Houston Astros loaded again for '18

HOUSTON (AP) - Not long after the Houston Astros won the World Series, third baseman Alex Bregman got another big reason to smile.

Justin Verlander wasn't simply a late-season rental. He was under contract with the team for two more seasons. Bregman's reaction, caught on a teammate's Instagram Live account, was one of pure joy, filled with shrieks and yelling.

The Astros could have more grins in store this season: Manager A.J. Hinch will not only have the ace right-hander for the whole year, he will have a loaded rotation and pretty much every key player who helped Houston win it all last fall, from American League MVP Jose Altuve to World Series MVP George Springer and All-Star Carlos Correa.

Acquired in an Aug. 31 trade from Detroit, Verlander was 5-0 with a 1.06 ERA and 43 strikeouts in five regular-season starts for Houston before going 4-1 with a 2.20 ERA and making his first career relief appearance in the postseason to help the Astros to their first title.

The 2011 American League MVP and Cy Young Award winner leads a pitching staff that is arguably the best in baseball and one of many reasons the Astros believe they will contend for the title again this year. He will start on March 29 when the Astros open the season on the road against the Texas Rangers, followed by 2015 Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel, Lance McCullers, new acquisition Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton.

The 35-year-old Verlander admitted that his time with Houston last season was a bit of a blur, and he is looking forward to having more time this year to settle in and get to know his teammates.

"The last few years I've done a much better job of taking (off my blinders) and seeing what other guys are doing, watching their routines and seeing any way that maybe I could help guys out," he said. "So that's a lot of fun for me especially in a new organization with tons of new guys, tons of young guys. I feel like I have a lot of wisdom and I've experienced a lot in this game ... so any way I can help them that's what I'm trying to do."

Some things to know as the Astros prepare to defend their title:


If Houston's rotation pitches to its potential and the team's powerful lineup led by Altuve, Correa and Springer builds on last season's success, there's no reason to think the Astros can't make another deep playoff run and possibly repeat as champions. Hinch believes the Astros have the right mindset for continued success this season.

"My job is to set the culture and set the expectations and then the players really focus on the chemistry and it's a really tight knit group," he said. "This is the closest team I've ever been associated with. I like how they push each other."


Anything less than competing for a title would be a disappointment. If the Astros stay healthy, it's hard to believe that they won't make the postseason for the third time in four years.


Altuve signed a seven-year, $163.5 million contract last week after becoming Houston's first MVP since Jeff Bagwell won the National League honor in 1994. The popular second baseman was one of the biggest bargains in baseball, making just $4.5 million last season as he won the AL batting title for the third time in four years by hitting a career-best .346. His last deal, which paid him just $12.5 million from 2014.2017 included club options of $6 million and $6.5 million, which remain in the new contract. He will get a $21 million signing bonus and $26 million a year from 2020-24.


The Astros entered spring training hoping to move utility man Marwin Gonzalez into a full-time role in left field. But first baseman Yuli Gurriel had hand surgery on Feb. 28, which will leave Gonzalez to fill in there early in the season. Last year, Gonzalez hit .303 with 23 homers and 90 RBIs - all career highs - while playing all over the field. Though Hinch wanted Gonzalez to be more settled this season, he knows he will excel wherever he plays.

"It's very rare that you have a guy like Marwin that can fill in and you don't feel like you're taking a step back," Hinch said. "If I have a problem anywhere on the field the answer is usually Marwin can do it. He's a very versatile guy that deserves high praise."


Houston's overabundance of starters forced the Astros to move two players who spent last season mostly as starters into the bullpen. The move isn't a big deal for Brad Peacock, who has spent his career bouncing between starting and relieving. But the switch will be a bit of an adjustment for Collin McHugh, who hasn't pitched out of the bullpen since two relief appearances in 2013 with the New York Mets.


More AP baseball:

FILE - In this March 6, 2018, file photo, Houston Astros' Jose Altuve steps to the plate during the team's spring training baseball game against the Washington Nationals in West Palm Beach, Fla. Altuve signed a seven-year, $163.5 million contract last week after becoming Houston's first MVP since Jeff Bagwell won the National League honor in 1994. (AP Photo/John Bazemore, File) The Associated Press
FILE - In this Feb. 15, 2018, file photo, Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch waves during baseball spring training in West Palm Beach, Fla. Hinch believes the Astros have the right mindset for continued success this season. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File) The Associated Press
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