When the Chicago Cubs signed Jon Lester last December to a six-year, $155 million contract, it signaled a change in the direction of the organization.
After three years of trading away veterans, adding talent through the draft and building baseball's best farm system, signing Lester was the move from Theo Epstein that showed that the losing was over and that it was time for the Cubs to win. It was time to win big.
The hiring of Joe Maddon, widely renowned as one of the best managers in the league, only strengthened that claim.
Fast forward one year, and the Cubs once again made headlines in December. This time it wasn't just signing a premier ace - although they did get a pretty darned good starter - it was signing three capable players who are all outstanding fits to the current roster.
Outfielder Jason Heyward, the top free agent in this year's class, reportedly turned down three other teams to sign with the Cubs - per Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports. He still got an incredibly lucrative eight-year, $184 million contract, but the success and elite pipeline of talent that Epstein has assembled was likely even more convincing than the money.
"My mindset is to win the World Series, and I feel I have a great opportunity to do so with this group here," Heyward said via Mark Gonzales of the Chicago Tribune. "They didn't have to do too much (recruiting). From the product on the field to the atmosphere, it speaks for itself."
Win the World Series. The Cubs have never been shy about proclaiming their confidence, just think back to what star first baseman Anthony Rizzo said before last season.
Back in January, Rizzo stated that the Cubs would win the NL Central in 2015 and maybe even the World Series. This was before Maddon had even managed a game, before Lester had thrown a single pitch in white and blue pinstripes, and before Jake Arrieta had even begun his Cy Young campaign.
As it turned out, the Cubs shocked the world by winning 97 games, making the playoffs as a wild card team and proceeding to advance all the way to the NLCS.
Unfortunately, they ran out of steam at the end and could not overcome the Mets' super-rotation.
This offseason, however, the Cubs improved this offseason in ways few teams did.
They added Ben Zobrist, a swiss army knife of sorts who can play seemingly every position on the field. Zobrist has a history with Maddon from their days in Tampa Bay, and his versatility coupled with his postseason experience will work wonders for the clubhouse in the dog days of August as well as when they get to the playoffs.
Now throw in John Lackey, another proven winner who has seen it all in his 13 years in the big leagues. He showed impressive durability last year by making 33 starts and passing the 200-inning plateau for the sixth time in his career, and he gives the Cubs a terrific No. 3 starting pitcher behind Arrieta and Lester.
But what makes the current situation on the North Side even more incredible is that even without the three additions, the Cubs already had themselves a contender.
With the new trio of Heyward, Zobrist and Lackey, the potential for this club is limitless.
“People were optimistic a year ago,’’ Cubs owner Tom Ricketts told Bob Nightengale of USA TODAY. “But the expectations are that this is a team that should compete to win the division and should be in the playoffs. And if we don’t make the playoffs, I’m sure they’ll be very disappointed."
All it takes is one glance at their projected 2016 lineup to see how good the Cubs are going to be.
Obviously, Maddon will structure the lineup however he sees fit, but these eight guys are going to get the bulk of the at-bats. However they hit in the order, it isn't hard to see why the Cubs are going to score plenty of runs.
One of the biggest knocks on Heyward's free agent campaign was his lack of power, but if he hits in the leadoff spot, the 13 home runs he hit last year will play just fine.
With Heyward getting on base, Zobrist serving as the quintessential No. 2 hitter because of his ability to handle the bat and then a murderer's row of Rizzo, Bryant, Schwarber, opposing pitchers won't have any chance to catch their breath trying to navigate through the order.
Maddon will also have a strong bench, a tremendous starting rotation and a sturdy bullpen to lean on as he directs the Cubs through the arduous 162-game season.
Youth and inexperience are two things that could hamper the Cubbies down the stretch. The analytics suggest that players who experience success as rookies usually see some regression in their second year in The Show.
Maddon, however, is not concerned about his players dealing with a "sophomore slump."
“I think the sophomore jinx is all about the other team adjusting to you and then you don’t adjust back,” Maddon said recently at the winter meetings. “So the point would be that we need to be prepared to adjust back. I think that’s my definition of the sophomore jinx, and sometimes you will get the group that takes things for granted and believes or concedes that it’s just going to happen again."
With the majority of the producers from last year's NLCS club returning for 2016, the addition of three high-impact players and arguably the game's best manager at the helm of a roster that shouldn't be affected by the sophomore slump, the Cubs look like a scary team.
They look like a legit World Series contender.
The Cubs have all of the pieces to break the infamous Curse of the Billy Goat and bring a championship to North Side for the first time since 1907, now they just have to go out and do it.
“Everything looks good,’’ Epstein said, per Nightengale. “But we haven’t accomplished that much yet. There’s so much work in front of us. I don’t think we’re a finished product yet."