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Yankees, Angels improve but Astros MLB’s team to beat

Jose Altuve holds the Commissioner's Trophy after the Houston Astros defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers 5-1 in game seven to win the 2017 World Series at Dodger Stadium on November 1, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. AFP
Jose Altuve holds the Commissioner's Trophy after the Houston Astros defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers 5-1 in game seven to win the 2017 World Series at Dodger Stadium on November 1, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. AFP

Yankees, Angels improve but Astros MLB’s team to beat

Slugger Giancarlo Stanton joins a mighty New York Yankees line-up and Japan’s Shohei Ohtani adds spark for the Los Angeles Angels but the World Series champion Houston Astros remain the team to beat when the 2018 Major League Baseball season opens on Thursday.

No team has won consecutive World Series crowns since the Yankees in 1999-2000, but the Astros have kept the core of their lineup and added some talent to bolster a repeat bid.

Astros second baseman Jose Altuve, last year’s American League Most Valuable Player, and All-Star shortstop Carlos Correa, who had MVP-like numbers before a thumb injury, ignite Houston hitters while pitcher Justin Verlander has a full season after arriving in a deal with Detroit last August.

“We won the World Series last year and we got better this year,” Verlander said. “That’s a pretty good recipe for success. I’m excited.”

Altuve comes off his second consecutive AL batting title and third in four seasons, hitting a major-league best .346 with an AL-best 204 hits plus 32 stolen bases. Both he and Correa hit 24 home runs and batted in 84 runs.

“Being the MVP last year, it’s something I’m never going to forget,” Altuve said.

AL Championship Series MVP Verlander, 35, won 183 games in 13 years with the Tigers, then went 5-0 with a 1.06 earned-run average. Left-hander Dallas Keuchel went 14-5 with a 2.90 ERA. Joining the superstar duo is right-hander Gerrit Cole, who pitched five seasons for Pittsburgh.

“It’s impressive to be around guys with such accolades,” Cole said. “It’s a really cool opportunity.”

Stanton, Ohtani in spotlight

But it’s far from a Houston runaway and the AL-rival Yankees and Angels are major threats.

New York added National League MVP Stanton, who led the NL in homers with 59 and runs batted in with 132. He goes from a Miami team where he endured eight losing seasons to a Yankees team that last suffered such humiliation in 1992.

“Fans expect a lot. I expect a lot too. So we’re in the same boat,” Stanton said.

Adding Stanton to homer blaster Aaron Judge, who swatted an AL-best 52 homers as a rookie, on a team that led the AL with 241 homers last year makes the Yankees formidable against any pitcher.

“He’s not satisfied with last year,” Stanton said of Judge. “He wants more and more and to get better, which is exactly what you need after a season like that – that ‘it’s not enough’ attitude.”

First-time manager Aaron Boone also has catcher Gary Sanchez, who hit 33 homers last season.

“What’s exciting about our team is the young talent that’s there, the passion these guys play with,” Boone said. “These are real high-character guys.”

And then there’s Ohtani and the Angels, who could use a rare six-man pitching rotation to allow the 23-year-old Japanese star to have a regular mound appearance and bat in the lineup three other days a week.

Ohtani could be the first player since legend Babe Ruth in 1918 with 100 innings pitched and 200 at-bats in a campaign.

“We have a real good idea that Shohei’s going to be able to do things we’re going ask him to do,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. “Hopefully it’s going to lead us to a championship.”

Can Nats solve playoff jinx?

In the National League, the Washington Nationals boast star outfielder Bryce Harper and top pitchers Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer, but haven’t won a playoff series since 1981 when they were the Montreal Expos.

A five-game playoff ouster cost Dusty Baker his job and new manager Dave Martinez knows the postseason is where the Nats will be judged.

“We’ve got a chance to do something very special,” Martinez said. “But we’ve got to focus on the here and the now. They get that.”

The Chicago Cubs, last year’s NL Championship Series losers after winning the 2016 World Series, saw top pitchers Jake Arrieta and John Lackey leave, but added Japan’s Yu Darvish from the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Dodgers, powered by ace pitcher Clayton Kershaw, lost to Houston in a seven-game World Series thriller and should threaten again.

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