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Astros look to avoid championship hangover

Hinch and Co. plan to enter Spring Training as hungry as ever
MLB.com @RichardJustice

HOUSTON -- These Astros have heard from sons and daughters, from grandfathers, from all sorts of people. Sometimes, they do not have the words to express exactly how much winning a World Series has meant.

Or what it would have meant to a father or a best friend if they'd lived to see it. These emotions run so deep that the Astros may never be able to wrap their minds around winning the franchise's first world championship last October.

HOUSTON -- These Astros have heard from sons and daughters, from grandfathers, from all sorts of people. Sometimes, they do not have the words to express exactly how much winning a World Series has meant.

Or what it would have meant to a father or a best friend if they'd lived to see it. These emotions run so deep that the Astros may never be able to wrap their minds around winning the franchise's first world championship last October.

"I think the World Series will last forever," manager A.J. Hinch said Wednesday. "Obviously, we're going to hang a banner that will never come down.

"But the stories that I've been told in gas stations and coffee shops and restaurants and at my kids' school have been nothing short of moving. I give great thanks for them reminding us why we do this and why we are so entrenched in this city."

Now for the practical part of this thing: moving on. Yep, it's that time. Spring Training begins next week in West Palm Beach, Fla.

Video: Hinch discusses Astros' many options for left field

Only three teams in the last 40 years have won the World Series in back-to-back seasons.

"To be the team that has a chance to repeat means we did something pretty good last season," Hinch said. "It doesn't mean it's guaranteed for this season. We're not trying to defend anything. We're trying to win 2018."

This is the challenge -- tor climb the mountain again, to fight human nature.

"One of the things A.J. and I are both committed to is that last year was great, but it was last year," general manager Jeff Luhnow said. "We're not going to talk about it. We've talked about it a lot. This is a new year, and we're focused on 2018."

Hinch makes it sound like a plea.

"I want to thank all of you for letting us turn the page," Hinch said at a luncheon to unveil the team's 2018 ad campaign: Never Settle. "I'm going to be the one guy tasked with getting that mindset changed from talking about what was wonderful to what's ahead in 2018."

Video: Luhnow is pleased with Astros' rotation

Luhnow said, "We can't continue the celebration into the regular season. The goal is to win in 2018. We know we're going to be challenged."

That they are. The Yankees may be scary good. Other American League teams -- Indians, Red Sox, Angels -- appear to be good enough to win.

And the Astros might be better, too.

They'll have Justin Verlander, who was acquired from the Tigers on Aug. 31, for a full season, and Luhnow made a trade with Pittsburgh this offseason for another top-of-the-rotation starter in Gerrit Cole.

Luhnow improved his bullpen by signing free agents Joe Smith and Hector Rondon. His offense -- the one with World Series MVP George Springer at the top of the order and AL MVP Jose Altuve in the middle -- may still be baseball's best.

"Our team is, on paper, very strong," Luhnow said. "I'd be surprised if there was a team stronger than us on paper. But that's all it is at this point -- on paper. We've got our work cut out.

"We have really driven players, and I think that allowed us to have the success we've had the last few years. There's no question in my mind that Dallas Keuchel, Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, Lance McCullers Jr., these guys are not satisfied with what happened.

"They want, to use Dallas' quote, to take a great team and make it legendary. We're a great team with great accomplishments. We're not legendary yet, and I think they all desire to be legendary, both in their own careers and the team they're on.

"I think channeling that and reinforcing that and keeping focused, I think that's our single biggest challenge this year."

Hinch said some of the challenge is keeping things simple. That is, deal with what's immediately ahead. The Astros played 180 games in 2017, and while Hinch will monitor the workloads, he does not want a relaxed Spring Training.

"One thing I've learned from talking to coaches inside our sport and outside our sport is the perceived [championship] hangover is as much mental as physical," Hinch said. "I want our guys to be ready to play on Opening Day. If you limp into spring, you're going to limp into the season. If you limp into the season, you're going to find yourself playing uphill the rest of the year.

"I won't be careless physically with these guys in the spring, but I need to prepare them to play a championship season, and that includes playing in the spring."

Human nature? Complacency? He's glad you asked.

"We show up ready to compete," Hinch said. "We play hard. We play with energy and emotion. That doesn't change because you win or lose. The standard remains the same."

There's also a larger target on the Astros after winning the World Series, and Hinch has had that notion reinforced with text messages from friends around the game saying, politely, "We're coming after you."

Yankee fans, bless their hearts, conveyed the same thing two weeks ago after the New York Baseball Writers Dinner.

"They were telling me I better enjoy the ring, because it's the last one since the Yankees are back," Hinch said.

His response?

"I thank you, too, because I will enjoy that damn ring."

Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice.

Houston Astros