Chicagoans better brace themselves for a future where the Cubs are World Series champions, because it's happening a hell of a lot sooner than you think.
After picking up infielder Ben Zobrist and starting pitcher John Lackey from the free agent market this past week, the Cubs made their biggest splash in offseason free agency earlier today when they signed outfielder Jason Heyward to an eight-year contract. Heyward joins the aforementioned Lackey in leaving the St. Louis Cardinals for the North Side club.
With those free agent signings, especially the acquisition of Heyward, the Cubs became a clear favorite to win the World Series in 2016. The projected opening day lineup is young—only Zobrist and catcher Miguel Montero are older than 26—and filled with guys who will be with the team for a while. The 2015 season proved that the young core players of Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler, Kyle Schwarber and Addison Russell are capable of hitting home runs all over Waveland and Sheffield. The starting rotation has a legitimate number three pitcher in Lackey to go behind Jon Lester and 2015 Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta. Any team that has the misfortune of facing the Cubs in the playoffs better say its prayers because this is a roster designed to kill in October.
The biggest hurdle for the Cubs to clear next year is to prove that the incredible run they made in 2015 wasn't a fluke. Doubters and White Sox fans will point to 2004 and 2009, the years following the Cubs' other recent playoff teams, as evidence that, despite making big offseason moves and being favorites to win it all, this franchise is plenty capable of falling flat on its face. But the current Cubs are a much different story than the Cubs of years ago. Back then, the roster was comprised mostly of veterans signed to bad contracts in the last years of their primes, and the expectation was to win immediately or bust, and boy did they bust. This team, thanks to savior Theo Epstein, is built for sustained success. Young players with team-friendly contracts have just started, or are about to start, the prime of their careers. In a weak National League, going to the playoffs should be an easily attainable goal. With the Cardinals and Pirates not making moves so far to keep up with the Cubs, winning the N.L. Central is a realistic expectation every year for the foreseeable future.
That's not to say the team doesn't have its flaws. The outfield defense is still kind of a mess—Schwarber looks like a goon roaming around left field, and even though Heyward is expected to play center field, his natural position is in the corner outfield spots. The bullpen could still use some improvement, too. That said, the strengths of this team can overcome the weaknesses, and there's plenty of time to make moves to improve in those areas—something the organization has proven adept at doing the past few years.
Yes, the Cubs are built to win—now and for several years to come. The team has the power and speed to be the best in the National League. With each roster improvement, the goal of reversing the curse and bringing a World Series title to the North Side becomes more and more realistic. Next year is coming, and it's coming fast.