WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Amid the long-tossing, sprinting and bullpen sessions that comprised Houston’s first spring workout, the Astros also informally dedicated time to a balancing act.
Never in the Astros’ previous 55 seasons did they begin spring working toward winning a World Series championship while trying to store the previous season’s title in the bat rack.
“I don’t want to hang out and talk about last year forever — maybe off the field or away from work, talking to fans,” slugger Evan Gattis said Wednesday. “It’s incredible what we did as a whole for the city. Like I said, I still can’t believe it. All that being said, you can’t win the 2017 World Series in 2018.”
The Astros clinched their first World Series title a little more than three months ago, but manager A.J. Hinch is already growing tired of answering title-related questions.
“It’s nice and we need to celebrate it forever,” Hinch said. “That’s why we’re going to hang a flag. That’s why we’re going to give rings. This team’s different. It’s a different team. Even though the majority of these guys experienced a World Series, we’ve got to get them laser-focused on what’s ahead.”
With pitchers and catchers reporting this week, that was sometimes easier said than done.
Last season players arrived at their new home in the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches to find construction workers diligently hustling to get the complex game-ready. One year later it resembles the home of a World Series champion, right down to the large photos from the Astros’ title run hanging on the walls.
Justin Verlander didn’t join the Astros until the trading deadline last year, so he didn’t see the construction. His addition, however, cemented the blueprint for Houston’s first championship rings.
If there wasn’t already a target on the backs of him and his teammates entering 2018, the veteran righty ensured anyone listening understood the Astros are the team to beat.
“I think the American League goes through us,” Verlander said. “Obviously, the old saying, to be the best you have to beat the best, and I think we proved we were the best last year. This is a new year, bottom line, so everybody is entitled to their opinion. I think everybody in this locker room thinks that we have a championship-caliber team here.”
Of the many reasons to buy into Verlander’s optimism, consider that lockers of former Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel and newly acquired Gerrit Cole are an outstreched Verlander arm away in either direction. That makes three Opening Day starters in about a 10-foot span.
While some players roamed the area surrounding the clubhouse reliving the championship push through photos and other pieces of memorabilia, Cole wasn’t one of them.
“I’m kind of concerned about what field we’re going to work on today more so than where the trophy is,” Cole said, smiling.
The lockers of Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers Jr., two pitchers likely to round out the rotation, reside nearby. Collin McHugh, who missed Wednesday’s workout for his arbitration hearing, and Brad Peacock combined to make 46 starts last season, posting an 18-4 record. They could also factor into the rotation at some point this season.
In an era when free agency chomps away at potential dynasties, last year’s Astros suffered only a few nibbles. Veteran designated hitter Carlos Beltran retired and reliever Luke Gregerson is now the closer for St. Louis, but MVP candidates Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and George Springer return.
“It’s like a band of brothers coming back together,” reliever Chris Devenski said. “It’s pretty special what we did.”
That band enjoyed a ride that took the Astros later into the season than ever before, culminating in a victory parade that elevated a city beaten down by Hurricane Harvey.
Players and coaches alike didn’t have nearly as much time as they normally would to recharge their bodies before reporting to the Cactus League. Hinch conceded that some could experience a bit of a championship hangover, but he’s more than happy to supply the coffee and aspirin.
“I think there is a physical and mental toll that playing late in the season takes on you, but sign me up again,” Hinch said. “If these are the questions and this is the misery we have to go though, worried about hangovers and fatigue and things like that, then sign me up again for 2019.”