by Rob Joyce

With spring training games officially underway, baseball season is fast approaching. There’s still March Madness to keep us occupied while reserves and minor leaguers get most of the reps, but it’s an exciting time as all 30 teams (okay, maybe 20 or 25) start their World Series aspirations anew. Heading into 2018, however, the early favorites to compete for pennants look an awful lot like the teams that were the last to finish up 2017.

As we head to March, here are the five teams likeliest to be World Series champions come the fall:

5) Cleveland Indians:

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Photo Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

The Indians lost Carlos Santana and his 23 home runs to Philadelphia, replacing him with Yonder Alonso, who is coming off a career year and should replicate that success. Add in the fact that Michael Brantley and Jason Kipnis are both healthy after missing 144 combined games last year, plus more growth from Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez (both under 25) and you have a lethal lineup. Reigning Cy Young winner Corey Kluber was downright unhittable in the second half last year, Carlos Carrasco has above-average stuff, while Trevor Bauer, Danny Salazar and Josh Tomlin round out a very good rotation. They might not win 102 games again, but they are heavy favorites in the AL Central.

4) Chicago Cubs:

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Photo Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The World Series hangover proved to be real for Chicago, who seemed to drag their way through the 2017 season into the postseason. They still won 92 games and took the NL Central, but was bounced in five games in the NLCS by the Dodgers. Even with the “struggles” – at least compared to their expectations – Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and company finished NL in the league in runs scored.

On the mound they replaced a down-sliding Jake Arrieta with Yu Darvish, signing the 31-year-old to a six-year, $126 million deal earlier this month. He and Jon Lester form a high-end top-of-the-rotation duo that should make Chicago hold off on-the-rise Milwuakee in the NL Central.

3) Los Angeles Dodgers:

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Photo Credit: Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

The team with the best regular season record last year still has all-world Clayton Kershaw going once every five days, and lights-out closer Kenley Jansen on the back end. Those are two good guys to have help Los Angeles repeat as the best staff in baseball (3.38 earned run average, best in the NL).The question is who becomes Jansen’s setup man?

Young bombers Cody Bellinger and Corey Seager are each potential MVP candidates, as is Justin Turner (.322/.415/.530). Attaining 104 wins is asking a lot of any franchise. But they came within one game ending a three-decade World Series drought for a reason.

2) New York Yankees:

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Photo Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Last year’s young Baby Bombers reached heights no one could have predicted, coming to within a win of the World Series. Now the Baby Bombers have a year under their belts, as the lineup of MVP runner-up Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, Didi Gregorius and Greg Bird should again be among the most powerful lineups in baseball. And that’s before you get to their shiny new toy in Giancarlo Stanton. Off a 58-homer season in Miami, he and Judge have a legitimate shot to both hit 50 (or more) long balls. Combine them with Cy Young candidate Luis Severino, a rejuvenated Masahiro Tanaka and an Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances & Co. bullpen, New York has serious championship aspirations. However, they can’t be the AL favorites until they get past the defending champs…

1) Houston Astros:

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Photo Credit: Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

The best team in baseball from March to November last year looks awfully similar heading into 2018. Coming off a 101-win regular season, most everyone is back. Offensively, MVP Jose Altuve, World Series MVP George Springer, Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, Yuri Gurriel, Marwin Gonzalez, Josh Reddick and Brian McCann are all back. The rotation of Dallas Keuchel, Justin Verlander, Charlie Morton, Lance McCullers and newcomer Gerrit Cole is the deepest in baseball. Until proven otherwise, the World Series goes through Minute Maid Park.

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