(SportsNetwork.com) - Few teams generated more buzz this offseason than the Chicago Cubs.
The St. Louis Cardinals, though, still think they are the team to beat in the National League Central and will try to prove as much on Sunday when they kick off the 2015 Major League Baseball season against the Cubs at almost newly- renovated Wrigley Field.
St. Louis won its second straight division title last season and advanced to the NLCS for the fourth consecutive year. In fact, the Cards have now reached the postseason 11 times since 2000.
Basically, they are as about as automatic as you can get. And the same should hold true this season, as they return essentially the same squad plus one big addition.
Of course, the Cardinals go into this season with heavy hearts after prized prospect Oscar Taveras and his girlfriend were killed in a drunk-driving accident in the Dominican Republic during last year's postseason. Taveras, the driver, was reportedly five times over the legal blood alcohol limit at the time of the crash.
Taveras' death was the impetus behind the Cards' biggest offseason move, as they acquired outfielder Jason Heyward from the Atlanta Braves. Heyward fits the Cards lineup like a glove and a change of scenery coupled with it being a contract year could be just what he needs to start fulfilling some of that promise we saw early in his career.
Matt Holliday and Matt Adams will provide the pop, provided the latter can stay healthy. Speaking of health, the Cards can ill afford to lose catcher Yadier Molina again for an extended amount of time.
Although he hit a career-worst 11 home runs last season, Heyward should still help a lineup that last season finished 23rd in the majors in runs scored. They also ranked last in the NL with just 105 home runs.
One cause for concern could be in the rotation. On paper it stacks up with any team in the league, but ace Adam Wainwright stated over the winter that his arm was so weak at the end of last season that he was barely able to open a soda can.
After winning 20 games in the regular season Wainwright struggled in the playoffs. He had Tommy John surgery four years ago, but since the start of the 2013 season no pitcher in baseball has thrown more innings than Wainwright, who has logged 519 2/3 (including the postseason).
Maybe that is why the Cards traded for John Lackey at last year's deadline. He gives them a solid veteran option along with righty Lance Lynn. The hope is that Michael Wacha regains the form from two seasons ago and that somehow lefty Jaime Garcia can return after two injury-plagued seasons.
Despite an abdominal strain that only allowed Wainwright to make three Grapefruit League starts, he will still draw his fifth Opening Day start against a Cubs team that is in search of their first world title since 1908.
Still, there is a ton of optimism surrounding the Cubs despite losing 89 games last year and bringing up the rear in the division for the fifth straight season.
Not only did the Cubs add perhaps the best manager in baseball in Joe Maddon, they paired him with ace left-hander Jon Lester, who agreed to a 6-year, $155 million free agent deal.
"We can't expect anything to be given to us," said Maddon. "If we're going to ascend within this division, we're going to have to take it."
Lester is one of the best lefties in the game and will spearhead a rotation that should be pretty solid. Behind him will be righty Jake Arrieta, who enjoyed a breakout season in 2014, while righty Jason Hammel returns to the Cubs after being dealt by them to Oakland at last year's trade deadline.
Lester has been dealing with a tired arm this spring and may be limited on Sunday. This will be just his second-ever start at Wrigley Field. His first resulted in a win for the Boston Red Sox back in 2012.
Few, if any teams have the young nucleus the Cubs have. Infielder Starlin Castro and first baseman Anthony Rizzo were All-Stars last season, while prospects Arismendy Alcantara and Jorge Soler all started to contribute at the big league level in 2014.
Kris Bryant will join them at some point this year, but the big question is when? He did more than enough this spring to show that he belonged on the Opening Day roster, but the Cubs held him back to delay the start of his service time.
In addition to the roster upgrades, Chicago spent more than $375 million in renovations to its historic ballpark, but it apparently will take a little longer than expected. The hope is that everything will be completed by 2019.
"It looks like Baghdad," Hammel told the Chicago Sun-Times. "But you know there's a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow there. I'm excited, man."