While the renovation of Wrigley Field had been years in the making, the blueprint for the Cubs' makeover took a somewhat unexpected turn last October when Joe Maddon opted out of his contract with the Rays.
Sprung by Andrew Friedman's defection to the Dodgers, Maddon signed with the Cubs in a matter of days, dumping small-market Tampa Bay for a chance to end the 106-year title drought on the North Side.
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Grabbing the charismatic Maddon was a great start to the offseason, but it was only the beginning for the Cubs, who made a statement on the first night of December's winter meetings by signing Jon Lester to a six-year, $155-million deal. That got everyone's attention -- especially the team in Boston -- and the Cubs soon followed by bringing back Jason Hammel for the rotation.
But the strength of the Cubs remains their wealth of young talent, which looks to be developing ahead of schedule. Kris Bryant had eight homers in his first 10 Grapefruit League games but is likely to open the season in the minors so the Cubs can stall his free agency. There are plenty more in the pipeline: outfielder Jorge Solder and infielders Addison Russell and Javier Baez, to name a few.
It's been a long wait, but the future is quickly becoming now for the Cubs.
Health remains the only thing that could derail the Cardinals' rotation, and that's becoming more of an issue after Adam Wainwright's offseason elbow surgery. Michael Wacha was bothered by shoulder problems last year. St. Louis traded Shelby Miller to the Braves to get slugger Jason Heyward, who adds serious thump.
After the Pirates lost Russell Martin to the Blue Jays, what did they do? They signed another Yankees catcher, of course, in Francisco Cervelli, who joins another Bronx backstop, Chris Stewart. The Pirates have offense everywhere -- with 2013 MVP Andrew McCutchen at the core -- and spent $39 million to keep Francisco Liriano in their rotation, which features Gerrit Cole at the front.
After 76 wins last season, the Reds' big offseason acquisition was Marlon Byrd, who really isn't a game-changer. Cincy has a talented roster; it's just a matter of keeping the players on the field. A year ago, Joey Votto was limited to 62 games -- after 162 the season before -- so that should be a major upgrade.
While their top Central rivals improved, the Brewers figured they could stand pat with a solid offensive nucleus of Ryan Braun, Carlos Gomez and Jonathan Lucroy. Matt Garza fronts a decent rotation, but depth is an issue as Milwaukee hopes to avoid a repeat of last season's fade.
Best of the NL Central
EVERYDAY PLAYER: Andrew McCutchen, Pirates
OVERALL HITTER: Joey Votto, Reds
POWER HITTER: Pedro Alvarez, Pirates
IN THE CLUTCH: Yadier Molina, Cardinals
INFIELD ARM: Todd Frazier, Reds
OUTFIELD ARM: Carlos Gomez, Brewers
CATCHER: Yadier Molina, Cardinals
STARTER: Adam Wainwright, Cardinals
RELIEVER: Mark Melancon, Pirates
CLOSER: Aroldis Chapman, Reds
GM: John Mozeliak, Cardinals
MANAGER: Joe Maddon, Cubs
STADIUM: Wrigley Field
UNIFORMS: Cardinals (home)