Theo Epstein took over as President of the Chicago Cubs following the 2011 season and began the arduous process of completely tearing down and rebuilding the franchise. After losing 89+ games for three straight seasons, the Cubs burst back on to the scene in a big way in 2015, perhaps even a year ahead of schedule. They earned 97 victories, captured an NL Wild Card slot, and made it to the NLCS before being eliminated by the New York Mets.
Rather than rest on their laurels after such a successful year, Chicago's offseason can be best described as "the rich getting richer." There's Jason Heyward, who the Cubs lured away from St. Louis with an eight year, $184 mil pact. John Lackey joined his fellow former Cardinal by agreeing to a two year, $32 mil deal. Manager Joe Maddon's favorite from their Tampa Bay days, Ben Zobrist, was brought in after he captured a title with the Royals; he got four years and $56 mil. Finally, late in the winter, the Cubs somehow convinced Dexter Fowler to spurn a reported offer for $33 mil guaranteed from the Orioles to return to the north-siders on a one year, $13 mil pact (with a mutual option for 2017) that's guaranteed value was lower than the Qualifying Offer he rejected from the Cubs to start the winter.
The Cubs didn't keep their moves limited to the free agent market, either. They also swung a somewhat significant trade with the Yankees, sending long-time shortstop Starlin Castro to the Bronx in exchange for reliever Adam Warren (the Cubs also got Brendan Ryan but released him shortly thereafter). Castro lead the NL in hits in 2011 as a 21 year old, but has battled inconsistency at the plate since signing a seven year, $60 mil extension. He lost his starting shortstop job to rookie wunderkind Addison Russell during the season and after Chicago signed Zobrist to play second base, the writing was on the wall for Castro.
The Cubs were obviously excellent already, but after such a busy offseason it's difficult to make a legitimate argument that there is a more talented team in the game. It's really an embarrassment of riches. Chicago's likely opening day lineup will feature just two players over the age of 30: catcher Miguel Montero, who slugged 15 home runs while playing below-average defense behind the plate last year, and the aforementioned Zobrist. Anthony Rizzo at first base and 2015 Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant at third could both very well be MVP candidates after combining for 12.1 bWAR last year. They will be 26 and 24 years old in 2016. 22 year old Addison Russell makes the game look easy at shortstop and isn't totally inept with the bat, either. Javier Baez, the 23 year old with plus power and big swing-and-miss issues, would probably be a starting shortstop on almost any other club but will be relegated to the utility role in Chicago.
In the outfield, Jason Heyward figures to slot into his usual right field, where he's long been considered the game's premier outfielder defender. He can hit a little bit too, but if he finally taps into the 25+ home run potential that he's displayed in the past with some consistency, he's another MVP candidate. The late re-addition of Dexter Fowler, coming off the best year of his career, will help shore up center field. Left field will most likely be made up mostly of a timeshare between 24 year old Jorge Soler, a former highly touted prospect who has flashed some power but battled injuries in The Show, and defensively challenged 23 year old Kyle Schwarber. Schwarber is an adventure in left and will also see some time behind the plate where he's also not been very good, but his calling card is his light-tower power. He actually sent a ball into orbit during the playoffs last season.
While youth is the theme of their offense, the Cubs starting rotation is made up mostly of veteran arms that came to Chicago from outside the organization. It starts with Jake Arrieta, who captured the Cy Young last season after winning 22 games and posting a 1.77 ERA and 236 strikeouts in 229 innings. There honestly might not be a better pitcher on the planet right now than Arrieta. John Lester is a more than capable number two behind him and he also enjoyed success last year with a 3.34 ERA and 207 strikeouts in 205 innings. Free agent signing Lackey slots in at three, and though he's 37 this season Chicago will be counting on him to continue as a steady mid-rotation presence. Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks figure to round out the rest of the starting five and are solid back-end rotation types.
The bullpen is anchored by Hector Rondon, who was outstanding last season with a 1.67 ERA and 2.35 FIP in 70 innings, striking out a nice 69 batters and earning 30 saves. Pedro Strop and Justin Grimm are both coming off excellent seasons as well and will form the setup committee. Adam Warren and Travis Wood were both successful swingmen last season and will reprise those roles this season, and the Cubs also re-signed Trevor Cahill to cover the middle innings.
On paper, it all adds up to the best team in baseball. PECOTA picks the Cubs to win a league-high 94 games and capture the NL Central in a landslide. Likewise, Fangraphs projects and MLB-best 96-66 record. The Cubs young core on offense has them set up for a sustained period of success, so long as their veteran pitching staff can hold up it's end of the bargain. Chicago is the odds-on favorite to take home the championship this season according to Bovada.
It has been 108 years since the cursed Chicago Cubs' last World Series title, however. From the billy goat to Bartman, their fans know well that just about anything can happen to derail their championship aspirations. Whether or not this is the year the Cubs finally break through, they will assuredly be a fun team to watch in 2016.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball Reference