Where do the reigning world champions stand in American professional sports? The NFL’s Los Angeles Rams are out of the playoffs, tied for the fifth worst record in the league, and mired in uncertainty surrounding their coaching staff and star players. The NBA’s Golden State Warriors just reached a .500 win percentage after grasping for straws over the first three months of the season, struggling to keep their headliners all on the court at once. The NHL’s Colorado Avalanche would be the last team in the playoffs in the Western Conference if the season ended today.

Major League Baseball’s Houston Astros, fresh off a World Series championship just two-and-a-half months ago, have yet to understand what regression means. It’s not in their nature.

“2023! The year of the Stros!” said Astros’ All-Star third baseman Alex Bregman in a tweet on New Year’s Eve.

Five years removed from a championship-winning 2017 season littered with deceit and controversy, manager Dusty Baker and the Astros drubbed the competition en route to the franchise’s fourth American League Pennant in six years and second World Series title after defeating the Philadelphia Phillies four games to two in the 2022 Fall Classic.

With Opening Day just over two months out, Houston will look to defend their title in 2023 with a unit that appears even more imposing than last year’s.

Spearheading the list of the Astros’ departures is 2022 AL Cy Young-award-winner Justin Verlander, who signed a two-year contract with the New York Mets in December. The former MVP spun perhaps the best season of his 17-year career, posting a 1.75 earned run average over 175 stellar innings with Houston in 2022.

Parting ways with Verlander might prove to be a solution for the Astros’ near-perfect roster.

Houston has a heap of talented pitchers but only five or six slots in their starting rotation. Quite the first-world problem for the champs. Losing the 39-year-old starter clears room for young, essential contributors Jose Urquidy, Luis Garcia and Christian Javier as well as highly-touted pitching prospects Hunter Brown and Forrest Whitley.

Urquidy, Garcia and Javier combined for 39 wins, 470.1 innings pitched and a 3.40 ERA as a trio last season. That’s a frontline starting three for just about every team in MLB, yet they’re all behind All-Star ace Framber Valdez – the second Astro to receive Cy Young Award votes in 2022 – in the rotation.

Many suspected Houston to experience slight regression in their pitching staff when highly-acclaimed pitching coach Brent Strom, who helped reshape the careers of guys like Gerrit Cole, Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton, stepped down in 2021. Instead, the Astros’ arms appeared to be in better shape than ever.

Houston returns every former All-Star on their active roster, excluding Verlander, from last season. Valdez, Bregman, second baseman José Altuve, relief pitcher Ryan Pressly, outfielder Kyle Tucker – a 2022 Gold Glove winner in right field –, outfielder Michael Brantley, and designated hitter Yordan Alvarez are all under team control for 2023.

It appears that first baseman Yulieski Gurriel, a reliable piece in the middle of the Astros’ lineup for seven years, will see his tenure with the team end. All Houston did to replace his production was ink 2020 AL MVP Jose Abreu to a three-year deal in November to be their new first baseman and provide additional power to the heart of their order.

Including free-agent signings, six Astros on the current roster received at least one vote for 2022 AL MVP. Alvarez, Altuve, Tucker, Abreu, Bregman and Valdez all were recognized in the final results with Alvarez receiving 30 votes and Altuve receiving 28 votes for MVP, per MLB.

Behind the embarrassment of riches on this roster is also a budding star in shortstop, Jeremy Peña. In his rookie season, the 25-year-old won the 2022 AL Gold Glove Award at shortstop and was named the MVP of both the 2022 ALCS against the New York Yankees and the World Series.

Houston’s over/under on wins for last season was 92.5 games via FanDuel Sportsbook. While many sportsbooks haven’t yet released odds on win totals for this season, you can expect that number to be higher for the Astros in 2023.

Astros players are echoing this sentiment, aware of how talented their group is.

“This team is top 2 and not 2,” tweeted Peña in November.