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Justin Verlander says Astros, not Yankees, the team to beat

Astros pitcher Justin Verlander reacts after getting the

Astros pitcher Justin Verlander reacts after getting the Yankees' Greg Bird to ground out in Game 2 of the ALCS on Oct. 14, 2017, in Houston. Credit: AP / David J. Phillip

TAMPA, Fla. — Justin Verlander isn’t among those buying into the hype surrounding the Yankees. At least not from the standpoint that they should be the favorite in the American League ahead of the defending world champion Astros.

“Obviously, I think we’re the team to beat,” the righthander said in West Palm Beach after reporting to Astros camp. “I don’t real ly care whose opinion, especially people that don’t play. Everything happens between the lines. I think the American League goes through us. The old saying is ‘To be the best, you’ve got to beat the best,’ and I think we proved we were last year.”

With a big boost from Verlander, a late-season acquisition from the Tigers, the Astros rebounded from a three-games-to-two deficit to beat the Yankees in the ALCS.

This winter the Astros added Gerrit Cole, a Pirates righthander whom the Yankees tried hard to trade for.

“We won the World Series last year and we got better this year,” Verlander said. “That’s a pretty good recipe for success.”

Opting in

Masahiro Tanaka had an opt-out clause in his contract that he could have exercised this winter, but he said he never seriously considered it.

“The biggest reason I wanted to come back to New York was to be a part of this team,” Tanaka said through his translator. “Fight with this team to capture a world championship.”

Fluid roles in bullpen

Other than Aroldis Chapman already being tabbed as closer, Aaron Boone said the rest of the bullpen could be called on at any time.

“We’ll expect flexibility out of most of our guys, certainly,” Boone said. “I think the one exciting thing about our pen is a lot of elite-caliber bullpen pieces and guys that can get [righties and lefties] out. We’re not a slave necessarily to the lefty-righty matchup.”

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