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Astros remain hungry after franchise's first title

With World Series in the books, Houston sets sights on successful 2018
MLB.com @brianmctaggart

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Don't talk to Astros manager A.J. Hinch about defending a World Series title. The way the fourth-year Houston manager sees it, the Astros don't have to defend anything. The 2017 season is in the books, and Hinch proudly says the Astros' championship banner will fly forever, no matter what happens in '18.

If you get the idea the defending -- there's that word again -- World Series champions are eager to get Spring Training underway, with the first workout for pitchers and catchers Wednesday at the Ballpark at the Palm Beaches, you're right. They're also ready to put last year to bed.

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Don't talk to Astros manager A.J. Hinch about defending a World Series title. The way the fourth-year Houston manager sees it, the Astros don't have to defend anything. The 2017 season is in the books, and Hinch proudly says the Astros' championship banner will fly forever, no matter what happens in '18.

If you get the idea the defending -- there's that word again -- World Series champions are eager to get Spring Training underway, with the first workout for pitchers and catchers Wednesday at the Ballpark at the Palm Beaches, you're right. They're also ready to put last year to bed.

Spring Training information

"The faster we can all start talking about 2018, the better," Hinch said. "I cannot wait to get to Spring Training. Some of it is to talk about 2018, but most of it is to continue to develop what culture is all about in our clubhouse."

Many Astros players, including 2017 American League Most Valuable Player Award winner Jose Altuve and 2015 AL Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel, have been training in Florida for weeks, and they'll soon have company. The first full-squad workout is set for Feb. 19, when Altuve, George Springer, Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, Josh Reddick, Yuli Gurriel, Brian McCann and the rest of the boys begin roaming the backfields.

:: Spring Training coverage presented by Camping World ::

The Astros will kick off Grapefruit League play Feb. 23 against the Nationals at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, which figures to be a popular destination for fans and reporters this spring. The Astros are loaded, having returned nearly every prominent member of their 2017 World Series championship team, while adding Pirates ace starter Gerrit Cole and veteran relievers Joe Smith and Hector Rondon.

Meanwhile, Justin Verlander will be appearing in his first Spring Training for the Astros, as well.

Expectations are at an all-time high for the Astros, who will be among the favorites to win the World Series this year. Of course, no team has repeated since the Yankees won three in a row from 1998-2000, and the Bombers probably represent the Astros' biggest challenge in the AL.

"We need to evolve with everything that goes on in our sport and try to be better than the next team," Hinch said.

For the Astros, this spring will be about managing at-bats and pitchers' workloads more so than finding out how the 25-man roster will be constructed. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow have very few roster questions, so the Astros will have to pace themselves this spring in order to hit 2018 in full stride.

"They're going to have to do the work," Luhnow said. "I think A.J. will have to do a nice job of easing our players into games, so it's been a short offseason. They've been pulled in a million different directions, so it's physically allowing them to breathe and allow them to get ready for the season at the same time. But I think it's more the consistent messaging and make sure we have a consistent message."

Video: Astros hope having Verlander in camp helps hurlers

The Astros don't have to go too far back in the history books to find the last time a defending -- ugh, sorry, A.J. -- World Series champion stumbled out of the gate. The Cubs, who won the World Series in 2016, were under .500 at the All-Star break last year before rallying in the second half to win the National League Central. Still, the Dodgers took them out in the NL Championship Series.

"I want our guys to be ready to play when Opening Day starts," Hinch said. "If you limp into the spring, you're going to limp into the season. If you limp into the season, you're going to find yourself fighting uphill the rest of the year."

Champs' roster loaded | Verlander's presence a bonus | Astros could be better in '18

Stay tuned to Astros.com throughout spring camp for all the latest on the Astros as they prepare to defend -- yes, defend -- their World Series crown.

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

Houston Astros