WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Try not to take this personally, but the Houston Astros are amused by you.
They’re not angry, not even agitated, but they don’t understand you.
They look at you incredulously, asking if they’re really understanding this right:
People are actually saying that the World Series goes through New York, touting the Yankees as the team to beat after acquiring National League MVP Giancarlo Stanton?
The last time the Astros checked, they were the ones dancing on the field, pouring champagne on one another, hoisting the World Series trophy.
They’re the ones going to the White House on March 12.
They’re the ones who will be presented their World Series rings in April.
And they’re the ones greatly improved from a year ago, and favored for a return trip to the World Series.
Photos: Astros Photo Day at Spring Training
Just ask them.
“There’s no guarantee of anything, we know that,’’ Astros veteran starter Justin Verlander tells USA TODAY Sports, “but starting right now, we’re the team to beat.
“You’re crazy if you think otherwise.’’
The Astros, who don’t win the World Series without acquiring the former MVP and Cy Young winner on Aug. 31, now have Verlander all year. They have Pittsburgh Pirates ace Gerrit Cole for the entire season. They also have new relievers Joe Smith and Hector Rondon.
Photos: AL MVP Jose Altuve back at Astros Spring Training
And they still have MVP Jose Altuve, World Series MVP George Springer, All-Star shortstop Carlos Correa and Game 5 World Series hero Alex Bregman. And Brian McCann, Yuli Gurriel and Marwin Gonzalez, too
The team that won 101 games during the season, and ran away with the AL West by 21 games, has the chance to be legitimately even better.
“It’s just common sense,’’ Verlander says. “We won the World Series. We didn’t lose anybody. We got better.
“The World Series goes through us.
“Everybody in here thinks that way, so why wouldn’t I say that?’’
There’s not a soul in the Astros’ clubhouse who believes anything different.
And they’re not afraid to say it.
Photos: Astros 1st full squad workout at spring training
They’re respectful, and certainly don’t want to be perceived as brash or arrogant, but are just being honest.
“I get that people want the Yankees to win,’’ starter Lance McCullers says. “They’re a great team. A great organization. One of the most historic franchises in our sport. And they made an unbelievable move getting the reigning NL MVP.
“Bu look at us. I know everyone will be gunning for us, but we’re better than we were last year. We’re the defending champions.
“To win the ALCS and the World Series, you’ve got to come through Houston.
“That’s just a fact.’’
Says former Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel: “I don’t understand when people think the Yankees are the favorites. How does it not go through Houston? Absolutely, we’re a better team than last year.
“We’re definitely the team to beat until proven otherwise.’’
Astros manager A.J. Hinch hears the bravado coming from his clubhouse, but instead of any fear or apprehension, he welcomes the swagger.
There’s nothing wrong with knowing that you’re good, and as long as you believe it, why not flaunt it?
“I think we have to embrace it,’’ Astros manager A.J. Hinch says. “We want to carry the burden of the team that’s chased.
“So I’m more impressed in the fact that these guys want to go out there and work for it, more than I am impressed that they want to talk about it. We will still celebrate ’17, but won’t obsess over ‘17, that’s in the past.’’
The key, Hinch says, is remembering the difficulty of winning the World Series. Keuchel missed eight weeks with neck problems and pitched just 145 2/3 innings. McCullers won just seven games. McCann played in just 97 games. DH Carlos Beltran drove in just 51 runs. The closer’s role was a revolving door. Bregman struggled the entire first half with a .256/.338/.419 slash line.
Really, Altuve was the only one consistently great the entire season.
It took them seven games to knock off the Yankees in the ALCS, 5 hours, 17 minutes to win the epic Game 5 of the World Series, and seven games to finally vanquish the Dodgers and win their first World Series.
“That’s why we’re not going to take it for granted,’’ Hinch says. “We know it didn’t come easy last year. We had so many injuries to everybody.
“It wasn’t a magic carpet ride.’’
That, of course, is subject to change.
Considering the abundance of talent in the clubhouse, and possessing the finest starting rotation in the land, there’s not a team in the AL West that can possibly stop them from an October return.
And once they’re there, just try getting past Keuchel, Verlander, Cole and McCullers.
The Astros still are the best damn team in baseball, and it’s going to take a major upset for someone to keep them from going back-to-back.
“I don’t know how people would see any different to be honest with you,’’ says veteran pitcher Charlie Morton. “What else could we have done in the off-season? Our offense is the best. We produced the most runs and had the best numbers in every metric that mattered. The rotation is unbelievable. The bullpen is great.
“And we have a clubhouse filled with guys who just won the World Series and want so bad to do it again.
“I really don’t know what else we could have done to improve this team because I think we’ve got it all.’’
This is a team that has a chance to be historic, perhaps threatening the Seattle Mariners’ and Chicago Cubs’ record of 116 victories, duplicate the Baltimore Orioles’ four 20-game winners of 1971, and become only the third franchise since the 1975-76 Cincinnati Reds to win back-to-back World Series titles.
“If we can stay healthy,’’ Verlander says, “we’re going to be great. I’ve been part of some pretty special rotations, but this is a dynamic one. We’re going to push one another to be great.
“I mean, we are all so competitive. We wouldn’t be here if we weren’t. When they let the dogs go out on the track, they put the rabbit out there for a reason.
“That’s us. We’re going to keep pushing each other all season long.’’
See you boys in October.
Maybe at the parade in November, too.