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Will the 'World Series hangover' haunt the Houston Astros?

You hate to pin your pennant chances on a concept that is more abstract than absolute, that is difficult to quantify and impossible to predict, but for American League teams trying to topple the juggernaut that is the Houston Astros, it may be their only hope.

It's called the "World Series hangover," the theory that a shortened off-season filled with celebrations and late-night talk-show appearances, heavy workloads from the previous season, a reluctance of the front office to tinker with a winner and a diminished drive among players makes it difficult to repeat.

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Recent history suggests a correlation: No champion has repeated since the New York Yankees won three straight titles from 1998-2000, and in that span, only two winners, the 2000 Yankees and 2008 Phillies, returned to the World Series the following year. Nine of 16 champions since 2002 failed to make the playoffs the following season.

"When you first get there, the hunger to get there is almost insatiable and guys will drive through a wall and knock down anything in their way," Seattle general manager Jerry Dipoto said.

"The second time around, once you've achieved it, I don't know, maybe you're not as driven? I can't think of another reason. My guess, having played the Astros as much as we do, is that I don't think lack of drive is a problem for them."

It might have been for the Chicago Cubs, who experienced the euphoria of ending a 108-year World Series title drought in 2016 and landed with a thud in 2017. They won 11 fewer games, and by the time they succumbed to the Dodgers in a five-game National League Championship Series, the Cubs looked gassed.

"We were feeling good about ourselves; we just broke a 108-year-old curse," Cubs ace Jon Lester said this spring. "I'm sure when we all came into camp, there was a feeling of, 'Well, we'll just show up and do it again.' I don't know if that's true or how you want to word that, whether it's a 'hangover' or what. I think guys going through that for the first time didn't know how to deal with it."

The Astros celebrated their seven-game World Series win over the Dodgers with a parade in Houston in November and a visit to the White House this spring.

Series most valuable player George Springer, second baseman Jose Altuve and third baseman Alex Bregman appeared in a "Saturday Night Live" skit. Springer was feted at Disney World and rang the New York Stock Exchange trading bell.

After a grueling October filled with pressure-packed games and an abbreviated off-season filled with revelry, could the Astros suffer a Cubs-like letdown?

"We're not the Cubs," Houston left-hander Dallas Keuchel told the Washington Post this spring. "I firmly believe we have better players."

He might be right. A lineup that led baseball in runs (896), extra-base hits (604) and on-base-plus-slugging percentage (.823) and had the fewest strikeouts (1,087) in 2017 returns virtually intact.

Most of the top hitters — Altuve (.957 OPS, 67 extra-base hits), Springer (.889 OPS, 34 homers, 85 RBIs), Carlos Correa (.941 OPS, 24 homers, 84 RBIs), Marwin Gonzalez (.907 OPS, 23 homers, 90 RBIs) and Bregman (.827 OPS) — are 29 or younger.

Houston will have Justin Verlander, who went 5-0 with a 1.06 ERA after being acquired from Detroit on Aug. 31, for the whole season. Hard-throwing right-hander Gerrit Cole, 59-42 with a 3.50 ERA in the past five years, was acquired from Pittsburgh.

"There's no doubt they're gonna be stronger," Texas third baseman Adrian Beltre said. "They have a really deep rotation. If it's not the best in baseball, it's in the top three."

Houston Astros pitchers, from left, Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Dallas Keuchel.
Houston Astros pitchers, from left, Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Dallas Keuchel. (Jeff Roberson / Associated Press)

Verlander and Keuchel have won Cy Young Awards. Cole was one of the most durable and dependable starters in the NL. The fourth and fifth starters, Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers, combined to allow one run in 6 1/3 innings in Game 7 of the World Series. Brad Peacock and Collin McCugh provide reliable depth.

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"Adding Verlander was like throwing salt in the wound," Dipoto said. "And Gerrit Cole is no slim pickings. When you can field five guys who can pitch at the front of most team's rotations, it's pretty special."

[The Astros] have a really deep rotation. If it’s not the best in baseball, it’s in the top three.


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If there's a potential weakness it's the bullpen. Closer Ken Giles faded in October, posting an 11.74 ERA in seven playoff games, and the Astros lack a reliable left-hander. But Giles was dominant in the regular season (2.30 ERA, 34 saves) and Houston has All-Star setup men in Will Harris and Chris Devenski.

"They pitch it, they hit it, they've got power, speed, athleticism, and they have a nice mix of veteran stability and youthful upside," Dipoto said. "You hate to use the term embarrassment of riches, but they've done an extraordinarily good job of creating both impact and depth, which is hard to do in today's game."

So who can compete with that? The Yankees, Red Sox and Indians might have enough pitching and firepower to hang with the Astros. The AL West teams that have to play Houston 19 times do not.

"There are no breaks in their rotation and lineup," Mariners catcher Mike Zunino said. "We have to be extremely patient when we're hitting and very careful how we pitch to those guys. We have to pick and choose how we attack them."

The Astros will likely bring out the best in their opponents.

"The way teams see you changes, the way they approach you changes," Rangers shortstop Elvis Andrus said. "They're the champions now, so whoever plays them is gonna bring their 'A' game. That's one of the hardest things when you win."

No one in the AL West has conceded. "We're all playing for the same thing now," Texas manager Jeff Banister said. "Nobody has been crowned in 2018."

But Houston is a clear-cut favorite.

"We're gonna fight, but we realize we're climbing a tall mountain," Dipoto said. "They're the best team in baseball, and not just because they won the World Series. They're the most talented team. They've got one banner flying, and my guess is, they're gonna compete for more."

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