As players report to spring training, here are 5 teams most likely to prevent an Astros repeat

There are serious threats to the Astros having another parade. Bob Levey/Getty Images

You want my opinion on if it’s too early to talk baseball? I say no way, Jose Altuve! Spring training is officially under way, so let’s talk baseball!

Football is over. I don’t care about the NBA until the playoffs start, and have never really gotten into hockey. With Opening Day moving up to March 29th this season, we’ll have regular-season baseball before an NCAA Final Four, too. I think it’s finally time to put the amazing season of 2017 behind us and start talking about 2018.

It’s no surprise that most sportsbooks have the Astros as favorites to win it all again this year and for good reason. They lost basically no significant pieces and improved heavily by adding Gerrit Cole earlier this offseason to what should be one of the strongest rotations in the league.

However, repeating in any sport is rarely done, especially in the MLB where it’s only happened a grand total of four times. One big reason for that is championship teams spend the entirety of the next season with a huge target on their backs. You think the Rangers are going to lay down for the Astros on Opening Day like they did most of last year? Think again.

With that in mind, here are the five teams, in my opinion, that could prevent the Astros from repeating in 2018:

5. Los Angeles Angels

It all starts in their own division. If the Astros even want a shot to repeat, they will have to go through the AL West first, and it won’t be as easy this year. The Angels made one of the biggest offseason moves by signing international prospect Shohei Otani, a two-way player that can pitch, play in the outfield, and do damage at the plate. They also picked up infielders Ian Kinsler and Zack Cozart, who paired with a healthy Mike Trout can win enough games in 2018 to give the Astros a run for the division. I will be very surprised if the Astros win the division by 20-plus games this year like they did in 2017.

4. Cleveland Indians

Let’s not forget the best team in the AL from 2017, the Indians. They lost a couple of pieces this offseason, but are still just as much a potent team as they were last year when they went on that amazing 22-game winning streak towards the end of the season. Perhaps luckily, the Astros didn’t have to face the Indians in the playoffs in 2017 after Cleveland was bounced by the Yankees. In 2018, I’ll have my same reservations about having to face them if it comes to that because they are still stacked.

3. Los Angeles Dodgers

It would be silly to pretend that losing Yu Darvish all of a sudden takes the Dodgers out of contention for being one of the best teams in 2018. They have the last two NL Rookie of the Year recipients in Corey Seager and Cody Bellinger, and arguably the best pitcher in baseball in Clayton Kershaw. They should have no problem locking up another NL West title to get them into the playoffs where they will be out for blood to redeem themselves. They made it to the World Series last year for a reason, and they could absolutely do it again and get over the hump this year.

2. New York Yankees

The Yankees took the Astros to the limit in their seven-game clash in the ALCS last year, and unfortunately for the Astros, they have made one huge upgrade. The Yankees added one of the best power hitters in baseball, Giancarlo Stanton, this offseason which paired with reigning AL Rookie of the Year Aaron Judge sets up a powerful duo that could double-handedly hit enough homers in 2018 to power their way past any opponent. They also have a decently strong rotation with pitchers Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, and will get a full year out of Sonny Gray, a pickup from 2017.

1. Chicago Cubs

Speaking of Yu Darvish, the team that picked him up? The Chicago Cubs. All that stuff I said about it being hard to repeat, the Cubs experienced that last year. Similar to the Astros, the Cubs will have to make it out of their division first, but with a lineup as good top-to-bottom as they have on both offense and defense, they’re the team I’m the most afraid of facing in the World Series if I’m the Astros. The team that won it all in 2016 is in there and just waiting to break out.

There are still some big names out there in free agency which could greatly change my opinion about this list such as J.D. Martinez, Jake Arrieta, Mike Moustakas, and Eric Hosmer, but for now, these are the five teams I see keeping the Astros away from back-to-back Commissioner’s trophies.

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The media has mixed feelings about the James Harden trade. Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

James Harden was 100-percent exactly right earlier this week when he said the Houston Rockets were "just not good enough."

How could they be? Not when their moody superstar scorer, who makes about half a million dollars per game, shows up chubby, looking like a kielbasa about to explode in the microwave. Hey, some people eat when they're unhappy, it's a defense mechanism. In Harden's case, the only defense he's exhibited this season. At least he had a good excuse for missing pre-season training camp and alienating his teammates - he was busy partying with Cinnamon and Cherish in Atlanta and Vegas without a mask. Worst of all, he went into the tank his last four games in a Rockets uniform, standing around, arms folded, scoring fewer than 20 points each time, all Rockets losses. Fans in the front row were asking him to move, he was blocking their view of players who cared about winning. James Harden sabotaged his own team, a team that offered him $50 million a year to stay. Something that crazy could only happen in professional sports these days.

There's a saying that drives the American labor movement: "a fair day's wage for a fair day's work." It's the motto of the American Federation of Labor. The National Basketball Players Association is not a member. Harden's sulking on the court, cheating the Rockets and their fans, was unforgivable.

Harden, sitting out games while somehow being on the court, forced the Rockets to trade him - and quick - to Brooklyn. The trade, when you ignore the fine print and unindicted co-conspirators Cleveland and Indiana, sent Harden to Brooklyn in exchange for Caris LeVert (immediately flipped for Victor Oladipo), Jarrett Allen, three first-round draft picks and four swapped first-rounders. It's true, when you trade a superstar, you never get back equal value. The other team wins.

If it makes Rockets fans feel any better, the media in New York already has problems with their new problem child. I should say newest problem child. Kyrie Irving plays for the Nets.

"They (the Nets) gave up everybody! There's nothing left now. I just want to cry, It's awful," weeped WFAN Radio talk host Evan Roberts. For those who don't subscribe to weekly Arbitron ratings reports, WFAN is the most powerful, top-rated sports talk station in the Apple.

"You're leading down the road of doom. Harden and Durant could be gone in a year and a half. I'm not convinced this gives them a better chance to win a title. I'm living a nightmare again. They better freaking win."

Circle March 3 on your Rockets schedule. That's when the Brooklyn Nets, with their Big 3 of Kevin Durant, James Harden and possibly Kyrie Irving visit Toyota Center. I hear talk radio salivating over the record jeers that will cascade over Harden's name, although I'm not buying it. Fans don't think like the media does. I'm thinking that Rockets fans will welcome Harden back - one night only - with cheers.

Toyota Center public address announcer Matt Thomas: "Usually when former Rockets come to town for the first time since leaving, I give them a positive introduction. It's up to the fans how to react."

James Harden spent eight seasons with the Rockets. He is a spectacular player who watched other NBA players engineer trades so they could compete for a title. Harden didn't think the Rockets were good enough, and he's right. So he wanted out. We've all been there, a job we didn't like for a company we didn't like, for a boss we didn't respect. Harden wanting to be traded is understandable. How he went about it was deplorable. He hurt his co-workers.

Houston will make Harden pay for his disrespectful departure. He has an upscale restaurant set to open here. The name of the steakhouse will be "13." Harden's business partners may want to change that number ... before the restaurant's telephone number is disconnected. There are plenty of other restaurants in Houston. Rich people who can afford steakhouse prices hold grudges.

Rockets fans searching for a silver lining say, "We got two decent players and a whole bunch of precious first-round picks" for a malcontent who would rather be anywhere (except maybe Sacramento) than Houston." Yes, a bunch of first-round picks does bode well for the future. Anywhere, except maybe Houston.

Houston's draft war room isn't the most successful operation in the NBA. Over the past decade prior to 2000, under the direction of general manager Daryl Morey, the Rockets made 16 draft picks. Not one of them is still in a Rockets uniform, many of them have sought employment outside of America, some outside of basketball. Among their first-round whiffs: Nikola Mirotic, Terrence Jones, Sam Dekker - all out of the league. Best of all, Royce White, who played three whole games in his NBA career and finished with a scoring average of 0.00 points per game.

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