One of my favorite moments of spring happened in West Palm Beach, Fla., where a bunch of reporters surrounded Astros manager AJ Hinch and peppered him with questions about how his team will handle being defending champions. This was a constant theme during the spring because … of course it
One of my favorite moments of spring happened in West Palm Beach, Fla., where a bunch of reporters surrounded Astros manager AJ Hinch and peppered him with questions about how his team will handle being defending champions. This was a constant theme during the spring because … of course it was. Spring Training is all about stories like this, stories about how the players will adjust to their new teams, stories about how players show up in the best shape of their lives, stories about the defending champs not becoming complacent.
It happens every spring.
I'm not saying this in a superior way -- I was one of those reporters asking Hinch about it. In fact, I think I was the reporter who on this day started the whole topic by asking him if this camp has felt different.
"I mean, it has felt different in that we've had more fans, more media, more questions about the previous season than in years past," he said. "I mean, look over there [to a group of fans lined up by the fence surrounding the field]. I mean, that wasn't here before the championships.
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"Most people will ask you about contentment, complacency, any of those big, ugly words that can tear down a team when they have success. I think our approach has been directly the opposite. I think we work a little bit more, take a deeper dive into what we're doing. It's how I'm wired, it's how our coaches are wired; our whole organization is built around trying to find a competitive edge when we can."
This is how it usually goes. Managers and general managers deflect the complacency question by simply saying their players are too hungry to stop. They know last year is last year. They have come to camp with a new attitude, a new focus, a taste of victory compels them to want to win even more than last year.
The thing is, it rarely works that way. We have not had a repeat champion this century. But even more to the point, of the 17 World Series champs since 2000, only two returned to the World Series, and more than half -- nine -- didn't even make the playoffs the next year. At this point last year, everyone was asking these same questions of the Cubs. President of baseball operations Theo Epstein and manager Joe Maddon assured everyone that Chicago would absolutely not have a hangover after its stunning 2016 World Series triumph.
And then, as Epstein is the first to admit, they had a serious hangover anyway. Most teams do.
But back to the moment -- Hinch was asked the question a few different ways. And finally he simply smiled mischievously and said: "You know what? We'll be fine."
This was the confidence of a manager who knows: This Astros team is just about perfect. That sounds like a jinx, and yes, in baseball, things can, and often do, go wrong: injuries, surprising setbacks, late-inning heartbreaks, clubhouse disarray and so on. We've all seen it happen. But going into a season, it's hard to remember a recent team that was quite as flawless as these Astros. You might have to go back to the late 1990s Yankees.
The Astros' lineup is spectacular. Houston led baseball in runs last year, and it wasn't especially close, and this was even while playing half its games in Minute Maid Park, which is a pitchers' park. The Astros scored 501 runs on the road last year. The last team to score 500 runs on the road was that intimidating 1999 Indians team that scored 1,009 runs for the season (the only team since 1950 to do that).
The Astros did everything -- they were first in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. They struck out the fewest times. They had the most hits and the most extra-base hits. They hit the second-most homers and also led the league in sacrifice flies. And the lineup was so young -- with core players like Jose Altuve, George Springer, Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman all 27 or younger at the start of last season -- that there seems every reason to believe they will be at least as good, and perhaps even better, in 2018.
So the lineup's awfully good. How about the pitching staff? The Astros had a good-but-not-great staff for most of 2017, in large part because ace Dallas Keuchel missed some time, and they really had to stretch the bullpen. Versatile guys in the 'pen like Chris Devenski and Brad Peacock had breakout seasons, and Ken Giles was really good as a closer. The pitching had to be pretty darned good because the Astros won 101 games, but if you had to pick a soft spot, that was it.
That's not it now. Toward the end of the season, the Astros traded for Justin Verlander, who was basically unhittable after coming to Houston. He now comes in to co-ace the staff with Keuchel. And then in the offseason, the team picked up Pittsburgh righty Gerrit Cole, who admittedly has not been as sharp the past couple of years as he has dealt with some injury and inconsistency issues. But this is a guy who finished fourth in the National League Cy Young Award voting and was named an All-Star three years ago. He's just 27, and he feels like he's had his best spring as a Major Leaguer.
With curveball maestro Lance McCullers and Charlie Morton rounding out the rotation, this suddenly looks like one of the best rotations in baseball. It frees Devenski and Peacock to become bullpen superweapons. The Astros' pitching suddenly looks very much like a strength.
There's depth. There's power. There's speed. There's defense. It's hard to spot any weaknesses on this Astros team. So, back to complacency. That seems to be the one thing this Astros team has to guard against.
"Look, we may not play well from time to time," Hinch said. "Over 162 games, it's a tough season. But we'll be just fine."
Joe Posnanski is a columnist for MLB.com.