Can the Astros defend their WS title in 2018?

Back-to-back championships among 5 questions entering 2018

December 17th, 2017

HOUSTON -- Considering the Astros are returning most of their core of players that led them to the World Series championship, the team feels pretty good about the way things set up for them heading into 2018. They'll get championship rings and raise a banner and be well poised to defend their title.

Of course, no team has repeated since the Yankees won three in a row from 1998-2000, so the road won't be easy as the Astros try to end that drought. Astros manager A.J. Hinch knows at some point the team will have to put 2017 on the backburner.

"We're still smiling and still celebrating, but I'm going to be the guy that has to tell these guys to flip the script and get on to 2018," he said. "We won't be any less hungry or any less motivated to try to do it again. I think our guys enjoyed the run and want to do it again."

Here are five key questions looming as the Astros head into 2018:

1. Can the Astros repeat?

They're loaded again offensively and have a deep rotation. But with 2017 National League MVP joining a Yankees team that took the Astros to seven games in the American League Championship Series, the competition stiffens. Even in the AL West, where the Mariners added and Dee Gordon and the Angels brought in Shohei Othani, Zack Cozart and , the competition stiffens. The Astros will have as good a shot as anyone at a World Series title, but winning it all won't be any easier than it was in 2017.

2. Can the Astros stay healthy?

Health is probably the one thing that could derail the Astros next year. The Astros had some major injuries last year they were able to endure, with starting pitchers , , and Charlie Morton missing significant time with injuries. All-Star shortstop was also out for two months with a thumb injury. If the rotation can stay healthy, the Astros should run away with the division once again.

3. Can the bullpen rebound?

Houston relievers had a 5.40 ERA in the postseason and blew three saves, including two in the World Series. All-Star regressed in the second half, and closer struggled in the World Series. Hinch pieced together the late innings by using starters in relief (Morton in Game 7 of the Fall Classic, for example), but the Astros will need more consistent work from the bullpen in 2018. Joe Smith is a nice addition, but Giles, Devenski and Will Harris will have to get more consistent.

4. What will a full season of bring?

Acquired from the Tigers at the Aug. 31 waiver Trade Deadline, Verlander went 5-0 with a 1.06 ERA in five starts in the regular season and was named the MVP of the ALCS against the Yankees. The Astros will now get him for a full season and hope he pitches like he did in the second half of 2017 after struggling at times in the first half of the year with the Tigers.

5. Will the Astros produce another MVP?

's remarkable 2017 season earned him just the second MVP award in the history of the franchise, and there's no reason to believe Altuve won't make a push to repeat in 2018. He may have company. Correa and had MVP-caliber first halves, but Correa missed two months with the thumb injury and Springer couldn't keep up his torrid first-half pace (he did win the World Series MVP). There's a good chance all three will be in the MVP race, though and Stanton of the Yankees might have something to say about it.