WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- On the opening day of spring training, manager Dusty Baker and his staff gathered their team before the first full squad practice. It was the first time the Houston Astros were back on the field together since celebrating their World Series victory in November, and there were plenty of smiles and hugs to go around.
Just over three months since the franchise won its second title in six years, Baker told his team it was time to begin anew. Baker last year galvanized this group, which sought vindication of raising a World Series trophy untainted by the sign-stealing scandal that hung over its 2017 title, along with a chance to deliver Baker his first World Series ring in 25 years as a manager.
After the meeting, he was asked how it felt to begin his first spring as the manager of a reigning World Series-winning team. "This is like a king with his army around him," Baker said under the Florida sun. "I like my army -- even though I'm a Marine."
But even as they gathered for the first time, it didn't take long for the conversation to turn to 2023.
"When you leave last season on such a positive note, it's easy to come back and see all the smiling faces, but at some point you realize that's last year and we have to get back to work," veteran Michael Brantley said. "I just know we're never complacent around here."
Now, as the Astros attempt to become MLB's first repeat champions since the 1998 to 2000 New York Yankees, it's time for a new mission -- with some new faces.
The most notable on-the-field addition is at first base, where Jose Abreu takes over after signing a three-year, $58.5 million contract this offseason. Abreu won American League MVP with the Chicago White Sox in 2020 and led the league in RBIs in 2019 and 2020. He's known as a clubhouse leader who thrives in RBI situations, but there is one thing missing from his résumé: a World Series title.
"In the last six years, I think the Houston Astros have created a great culture, great family here and I want to be part of that," Abreu said after signing. "And also, most importantly, I want to win."
Having a well-respected newcomer chasing his first World Series title could give them a new rallying cry during the months ahead in the same way winning one for Baker helped drive last year's team. On Day 1, Abreu endeared himself to his new teammates, giving batting tips to Alvarez, catcher Martin Maldonado and several other Astros in the clubhouse.
"As the season goes on, you find things to play for," Alex Bregman said. "Things that are super meaningful to you, super meaningful to your teammates. There's definitely guys in here that haven't won one before, like Jose. I'd love doing that for him."
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Yordan Alvarez agreed.
"Since the first day he [Abreu] got here, one of the conversations that we've had is he wants to win a championship," Alvarez said through the team interpreter. "I told him he made the right choice."
But some of the challenges that have made repeat champions so rare in recent years are already emerging for the Astros this spring. For the third time in five years, they have a new GM, after the front-office turmoil that festered during last season's championship run resulted in general manager James Click being replaced by Dana Brown.
And Click isn't the only notable departure. Ace Justin Verlander signed with the New York Mets this winter, though the Astros believe their pitching depth will be able to make up for his loss. They'll also have to start the season without starter Lance McCullers Jr., who was shut down this week because of a strained muscle in his pitching arm. MVP candidate Alvarez is also missing time early in spring training because of a hand injury sustained last season.
Still, despite the recent history of defending champions falling short the next season and the early obstacles popping up at Houston's camp, the man who will take over Verlander's role as rotation ace doesn't lack confidence that the Astros will be playing in their third straight World Series in October.
"I don't think it's going to be that difficult to do," Framber Valdez said through the team interpreter. "It's something we've done twice. We know that path and what it takes to get there. Even when we go through hard times we know what we need to do to get there. We don't get rattled in that regard."
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The experience that has made deep postseason runs a common occurrence in Houston is something the team believes will help it gear up for the rigors of another long season. They've done this before, having made the playoffs in six straight seasons.
"We've had short offseasons for a long time," Bregman said. "Guys know how to ramp up and monitor their load on the body. You have to monitor the miles on it."
And watching over it all is Baker, 73, who is likely nearing the end of his long career. He denies having any special message for his team as they embark on their attempt to repeat. The Astros simply know how to win and Baker is confident this season will be no different.
"These are a special group of guys," he stated. "They lead the way for the young guys and show them how to go about your business. Sometimes as a manager, the best things are unsaid."
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