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Defending champs could be even better in '18

Talented, productive core added depth in offseason
MLB.com @brianmctaggart

HOUSTON -- It's been nearly 20 years since a team won back-to-back World Series titles. The Astros are looking to end that drought.

Coming off the first World Series title in their 56-year history, the already-loaded Astros improved in the offseason and will be among the favorites to win the Fall Classic in 2018. Houston returns the majority of its core players and added Pirates ace pitcher Gerrit Cole and relievers Joe Smith and Hector Rondon in the offseason.

HOUSTON -- It's been nearly 20 years since a team won back-to-back World Series titles. The Astros are looking to end that drought.

Coming off the first World Series title in their 56-year history, the already-loaded Astros improved in the offseason and will be among the favorites to win the Fall Classic in 2018. Houston returns the majority of its core players and added Pirates ace pitcher Gerrit Cole and relievers Joe Smith and Hector Rondon in the offseason.

What's more, Houston will have pitcher Justin Verlander -- traded from the Tigers on Aug. 31 -- for the entire season and, presumably, a healthy Carlos Correa as well. In short, anything less than winning a second consecutive World Series championship would be a disappointment for this team.

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With the reigning American League Most Valuable Player Award winner Jose Altuve and 2017 World Series MVP George Springer in the prime of their careers, third baseman Alex Bregman on his way to stardom and some impressive talent on the way, the Astros are poised to contend for several years.

"That's been our goal all along, to get to the point of competitiveness and win a championship and hopefully win multiple championships," said general manager Jeff Luhnow, who engineered an Astros rebuild that bottomed out at 111 losses in 2013.

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But 2018 could represent the final chance for the foundation of the team, as it's currently constructed, to add another title. Lefty starter Dallas Keuchel and super-utility man Marwin Gonzalez are both free agents after this season and are likely to test the free-agent waters.

The addition of Cole and the quick rise of prospect Forrest Whitley could overcome the loss of Keuchel, who joins Altuve, Gonzalez and pitcher Brad Peacock as the only remnants from Houston's 2013 season. Looking further ahead, Verlander, Altuve and Cole will be free agents after the '19 season. The next wave of free agents after that will include Springer. They won't all stay in Houston.

Video: Altuve and Correa set great examples for the Astros

That's what makes this year so important. The lineup, led by Altuve, Springer, Correa, Bregman, Gonzalez, Yuli Gurriel and Josh Reddick, is as deep as it gets. The rotation rivals Cleveland as the deepest in baseball with Verlander, Keuchel, Lance McCullers Jr., Cole, Charlie Morton and Collin McHugh. Smith and Rondon will help shore up the bullpen.

And the Astros have impressive talent at the upper levels of the Minor Leagues, too, despite sending away multiple prospects in recent years to acquire Brian McCann, Verlander, Cole and others.

Hard-throwing right-hander Whitley, the No. 9-ranked prospect in baseball by MLB Pipeline, and outfielder Kyle Tucker (No. 17) are moving quickly through the Minor Leagues. Luhnow contends they could be in Houston later this year, though the big league team's depth makes that a long shot.

Still, the Astros should be contenders for several years to come, but their best shot to win another World Series is now.

"We are the only team that has a chance to repeat, but we have to do the work to put ourselves in that position," manager A.J. Hinch said. "We know how hard it is. We [won] it once, and our guys will be hungry to do it again. We'll embrace the opportunity, but it's going to take a lot of work."

Brian McTaggart has covered the Astros since 2004, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter.

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