Happy pitchers and catcher report day, Houston Astros fans. This year, of course, has a different feel than all the past official first days of spring training, as the Astros begin the long grind of a baseball season as defending World Series champions and the team to beat for the first time in franchise history.

If the team’s offseason moves and new season slogan of “never settle” (last year’s was “earn it”) are any indicator, the Astros won’t be resting on their laurels and will be gunning for another World Series crown in 2018. If they accomplish that, it will put the Astros in rarefied air.

Forty years ago, the New York Yankees repeated as World Series champions. Since then, only two other teams have matched that feat: the Toronto Blue Jays (1992, 1993) and the Yankees (1998-2000). These Astros can certainly repeat, but it won’t be easy.

Fittingly, the Yankees might be the team that poses the greatest challenge to an Astros World Series repeat. The team that pushed the Astros to their limit in the American League Championship Series made the biggest splash of the offseason by adding slugger Giancarlo Stanton to their already potent lineup while keeping their core group of players.

There is now a legit threat within the Astros’ division, as well, as the Los Angeles Angels loaded up in the offseason and hope to have superstar outfielder Mike Trout healthy for a full season. In addition to winning the sweepstakes for Japanese star pitcher/outfielder Shohei Otani, the Angels upgraded their infield by adding Ian Kinsler and Zack Cozart.

And, the Astros can’t forget about the only two teams that won more regular season games than them in 2017: their World Series opponent L.A. Dodgers and the Cleveland Indians, who gave the Astros fits during the regular season. Those two teams will be strong again in 2018.

But, the defending champion Astros also made moves — trading for a starting pitcher in Gerrit Cole, who has the potential to be the team’s third ace pitcher, and signing reliever Joe Smith, who should add good depth to the bullpen (although that might still be this team’s one weakness). — to get better while retaining all their key players and top prospects, and should be looked at as the team to beat. And that is something players are embracing.

“The American League goes through us,” pitcher Justin Verlander said in an interview Wednesday. “That’s the way it is. Those teams are going to have to beat us. I like being in that position. I like having a target on our back.”

James LaCombe: 409-683-5242, james.lacombe@galvnews.com or on Twitter @JamesAtGalvNews

Sports Editor

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