By Brett Dolan

West Palm Beach, Florida

Astros manager A.J. Hinch and General Manager Jeff Luhnow don’t hesitate when asked about their club winning the American League West in 2017. They both say the path has to go through Texas after the Rangers have claimed the division each of the last two years while dominating the season series.

However, experts and pundits have seemingly bypassed the intra-state battle and continue to put the Astros in a small category of teams that could win the American League and play in the World Series.

Hinch is quite willing to embrace the target of high expectations.

“We are in an era where expectations and educated guesses are done on every website, every outlet and every chance you get somebody will tell me or the players what is expected of us before we even get to the field, so why wouldn’t you embrace it?” Hinch asked. “Why wouldn’t you want to be on a good team that has high expectations and an expectation level that is high? Sure that comes with a little bit of angst and a little bit of questions and some range of emotions externally, but our internal expectations will always be greater than anyone who comes in front of me and lays them on me.”

Luhnow agrees.

“We wanted to get to a point where we would be consistently competitive and I think we are there right now,” he said while his team worked out in their new facility in West Palm Beach. “The last two years we have had winning records, we were fortunate enough to get into the playoffs two years ago but we want to have a crack every year, not just at the playoffs but at winning it all and I think we are well poised to do that.”

Relief pitcher Luke Gregerson got to the follow the Cubs historic run to a championship season up close last fall and got to wonder, what if.

“I am from Chicago so I was actually there and got to see some of it and it’s definitely a special time for an athlete, for the baseball season, for the fans, for the players, for everybody,” he said.

Gregerson would like to find out what it would be like to celebrate in Houston.

“A lot of guys here (in the clubhouse) would like to find out,” he said. “I think it would be great for Houston.”

Pitcher Collin McHugh doesn’t believe the team is far off from competing for the pennant.

“We were close in 2015,” he offered. “We were. We knew we had the talent that year. We knew we had the talent last year, nothing has changed. So I think that our expectations are to go in and get the job done.”

There is that word again, EXPECTATIONS. For the organization they probably haven’t been higher since the 2006 campaign when the club was coming off their first and only World Series trip.

Luhnow went out and loaded up on veterans with post-season experience in the off-season adding Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann, Josh Reddick and pitcher Charlie Morton to a team that already has young stars like Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and George Springer. That is just one of the reasons why so much more is desired from a team that won 84 games last year and finished third in the A.L. West.

“There is a certain amount of pressure that comes with expectations,” Luhnow explained. “But the expectations are there for a reason. The fans and the media and we recognize that we have the players and the staff to win our division and do some damage in the playoffs.”

Of course there is also the matter of trying to vanquish the Rangers, a team that has built its foundation on clubbing the Astros in recent seasons.

So are the Astros really one of the favorites for the World Series or a team that is hunting to just win a division?

Jose Altuve took a crack at explaining the team’s mindset for 2017.

“We are the ones that are going to win games,” he said matter of factly. “I don’t know if we are going to hunt or be hunted, but we are there to play hard.”

If playing hard leads to a good start in April and May that would certainly help. Luhnow admitted a lot of thought went into why the team played so well in the season’s first month in 2015 and did not in 2016. It is hard to figure out why.

“But I do know this year the focus is very much on being prepared and getting out of the gates strong, because that is the big difference between the year we made the playoffs and the year we didn’t,” he said.



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