HOUSTON - The Houston Astros entered last season looking to defend the title after winning their first World Series in 2017.
Being eliminated in the ALCS by the Boston Red Sox has done nothing to shake their confidence as the 2019 season arrives.
"I don't think the feeling's any different," manager AJ Hinch said. "I think the way people talk about things is a little different ... there's an expectation of winning here and there should be. We have a good team."
The Astros won their second AL West crown last year after setting a franchise record with 103 wins. They swept the Cleveland Indians in the ALDS before injuries to stars Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa contributed to a 4-1 series loss to the Red Sox in the next round.
Although the expectations remain high for a team that returns the majority of its roster from last season, Hinch will be careful to make sure these Astros don't look too far ahead.
"I'm going to be the guy behind the scenes who is keeping our feet on the ground and making sure that we win series, we win homestands, we win months," Hinch said. "It's a boring, methodical way of describing it but that's what's needed for 162 (games) and that's why we've had four winning seasons."
Altuve and Correa are healthy now and up-and-coming star third baseman Alex Bregman is poised to take another step after a breakout 2018 season. The rotation is in good shape, too, with Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole back to lead the pitching staff.
"I have as much confidence as I ever have in this team," Hinch said. "I love this team. I love the makeup. I love the edge that we have, the versatility that we have, the depth that our minor league system has. There's a lot of good going on here."
The Astros open the season at Tampa Bay on March 28 with Verlander on the mound against 2018 Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell.
WHO'S THE DH?
The Astros didn't re-sign Evan Gattis, who served as the team's designated hitter last season, leaving that spot open entering this year. But don't expect the team to fill the role with just one player. General manager Jeff Luhnow said Tyler White will get some at-bats but the team plans to use the DH spot to give their stars a break from playing in the field from time to time. He noted that Altuve, Correa, Bregman, first baseman Yuli Gurriel and center fielder George Springer could all see time at designated hitter this season.
"It's nice to have that flexibility and not be locked into having one guy that you have to play every day because he's the DH," Luhnow said. "We certainly want to utilize that spot and maximize both the rest it provides for the position players as well as the output because we want to get some home runs out of that spot."
While much of Houston's team is unchanged from a year ago, the Astros did add a few new players this offseason. Their top acquisition came with the signing of Michael Brantley to a two-year, $32 million deal. The 31-year-old gives the Astros an upgrade in left field and adds a left-handed bat to a predominantly right-handed lineup. The career .295 hitter had spent his entire 10-year career with the Indians.
After letting left-hander Dallas Keuchel go in free agency, the Astros filled his role in the rotation by adding fellow lefty Wade Miley on a one-year, $4.5 million contract. Miley was 5-2 with a 2.57 ERA in 16 starts and 80 2/3 innings for the Milwaukee Brewers last year.
Houston also signed a new catcher in Robinson Chirinos after Brian McCann signed with the Braves. Chirinos spent the last six seasons with the Rangers, where he hit .222 with 18 homers and 65 RBIs. They also traded for utility player Aledmys Diaz after longtime super-utility man Marwin Gonzalez signed with the Twins. Diaz, who was an All-Star in 2016, batted .263 with 18 home runs and 55 RBIs for the Blue Jays last season.
ROOKIES TO WATCH
This team won't have many rookies on its opening day roster, but a pair of young pitchers will be important in the bullpen. Josh James and Framber Valdez both made their MLB debuts late last season, but will still be considered rookies this season because of their limited work last year. Valdez competed for the fifth spot in the rotation this spring, but was beat out by veteran Brad Peacock. The left-handed Valdez was 4-1 with a 2.19 ERA in eight games with five starts last season. James performed so well after a September call-up that he made Houston's playoff roster. The 25-year-old, whose fastball routinely hits 102 mph, missed out on a chance to compete for a spot in the rotation because of a quadriceps injury this spring. But he's healthy now and should contribute out of the bullpen early, but could start at some point this season.
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