Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker (L) used rookie Jeremy Pena (R) to fill in for Carlos Correa last season and watched the shortstop gain World Series MVP honors. File Photo by Kevin M. Cox/UPI | License Photo
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla., Feb. 22 (UPI) -- Manager Dusty Baker and Houston Astros players will try to become the first MLB team in 23 years to repeat as champions in 2023. They say chemistry and an ability to replace star players will be the key attributes for success.
MLB's two-decade run without a repeat champion is the longest in the history of any major U.S sports league.
"I like challenges. I didn't know that," Baker said Wednesday at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches in West Palm Beach, Fla.
"That's a wonderful thing. That gives me more motivation to do that."
Four NBA teams have won back-to-back titles since New York Yankees won a third-consecutive World Series in 2000 to become MLB's most-recent repeat champion.
The NHL and MLS each had two teams win consecutive titles over the last two decades.
The Astros beat the Philadelphia Phillies in November to capture the franchise's second title. They also won in 2017 and appeared in four of the last six MLB finales.
Having star players leaving in free agency continues to impact teams in every league, but Baker's bunch say they are confident they will provide noteworthy results again in 2023.
Last off-season, All-Star shortstop Carlos Correa signed with the Minnesota Twins instead of staying with the Astros. At that time, Baker said the Astros had a "gap" and he would miss the star infielder. He also said he would "turn the page."
Top prospect Jeremy Pena competed last spring training and earned a full-time opportunity to fill Correa's job. He won World Series MVP honors about seven months later.
"Carlos Correa is a superstar in this game," Pena said Wednesday. "It hurts every time you lose a player like that. Correa was a mentor to me, so I just saw it as I was gonna be playing shortstop for the Houston Astros.
"The guys already had a great team going. So I was just trying to come in and form a piece of it."
Major pieces of that team remain, like second baseman Jose Altuve, third baseman Alex Bregman, designated hitter Yordan Alvarez, outfielders Kyle Tucker and Michael Brantley -- and now Pena.
The Astros lost star pitcher Justin Verlander and first baseman Yuli Gurriel to free agency. The Astros retained Brantley and star relief pitcher Rafael Montero through free agent deals.
They also brought in former Chicago White Sox All-Star first baseman Jose Abreu on a deal worth nearly $60 million.
"We still feel like we have a great ball team," Pena said. "We still feel we can win games. It's tough to [win consecutive titles] in any sport. But we have pretty much the same team, so why not?"
Baker, 73, became the oldest manager ever to win a World Series last postseason, and he remains the oldest skipper in MLB.
He is widely considered to be a player's manager -- a boss who isn't overly strict on discipline and forms close relationship with players. He says he never chose to be a manager, but the job was chosen for him.
That philosophy has seemingly channeled into the Astros' identity.
"Most of these guys were leaders where they came from at some point in time -- in Little League, high school, college or whatever," Baker said of his current group.
"They were all the stars where they came from. That star just wasn't shining quite as brightly as when they got around the other stars. But there's a star in every one of these guys. We'll see it. I've always said leaders are are anointed by teammates. They're not appointed by me."
Astros players, including veteran catcher Martin Maldonado, were tight-lipped on specific tactics Baker uses to keep them together. But Maldonado said maintaining confidence is an essential part of the manager's philosophy.
"We understand this is a business, but we have a job to do and we have to stay focused. It is all behind the scenes, but [Baker] makes sure we are confident to go out there and win games," Maldonado said.
Altuve is in his 13th season and is the longest-tenured Astros player. The eight-time All-Star, two-time champion and 2017 National League MVP echoed Baker's sentiments. He also said the Astros' clubhouse humility and bond remains, despite turnover in the front office and clubhouse.
"I think the chemistry and philosophy we have here is what makes us great," Altuve said. "Every single guy who puts the uniform on is a leader here. All the talk here is about winning. There is no saltiness.
"We know that individual titles are important, but that's not our main goal. Our main goal is to win as many games as possible and go from there."
At this early point before the season begins, the Astros are favored to win the 2023 World Series. The Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Mets and New York Yankees are among other expected contenders.
The Astros finished inside the Top 5 in batting average, home runs and earned-run average among American League teams in each of the past three full seasons, excluding the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.
They also won at least 100 games in four of the last five full seasons, including an American League-best 106 in 2022.
They will start their 2023 spring training schedule against the Mets at 1:05 p.m. EST Saturday at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches.