We were near a back field at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches a couple of weeks ago, when there was still a lot of Spring Training ahead of AJ Hinch. Justin Verlander was throwing behind him, and the sound of the ball in the catcher’s glove providing a perfect soundtrack to a spring morning.

Now, it is the week of Opening Day, and the Astros will be back in Florida on Thursday night, on the other side of the state. Verlander, effectively pitching with a two-year, $66 million contract extension stuffed in his back pocket, will be Hinch’s Opening Day starter against the Rays in St. Petersburg. And the Astros will consider themselves as much of a favorite to win the World Series as they were when they left West Palm Beach a year ago.

Maybe even more so, if you listen to the manager.

“I have as much confidence as I have ever had,” Hinch said in the middle of March. “I love the edge we have, and we all know what it takes to get to the finish line.”

Hinch lost Charlie Morton, one of the pitching stars of October 2017, who is now playing for the Astros' opponent Thursday night at Tropicana Field. Hinch lost Lance McCullers Jr., another star that October, to injury. Dallas Keuchel, once an American League Cy Young Award winner in Houston, remains an unsigned free agent.