By: Steven Miller – Asst. Sports Editor
The sunny skies of Florida and Arizona beckon as Major League Baseball’s spring training looms on the horizon, ready to usher in a new year of America’s pastime. Offseason action in the baseball world has laid the groundwork for another exciting season, and possibly a new era for several notable franchises.
Here in the Midwest, baseball fans are aware as any fans that the Chicago Cubs have not won a championship in a long, long time. One hundred and seven years to be exact, but who’s counting? Chicago, however, reeled in the most prized free agent on the baseball market this offseason — Jon Lester. The 30-year-old, left-handed pitcher was with the Boston Red Sox from 2006 until 2014, and won two World Series with the team. Lester joins his former general manager, Theo Epstein, with the Cubs. Epstein helped to end Boston’s 86-year championship drought in 2004, and is working to bolster the Cubs lineup to do the same in Chicago.
Epstein loaded the Cubs organization with young talent that is now just beginning to emerge in the big leagues. Javier Baez and Jorge Soler are two such players that made the leap to Chicago last season to join veteran talents like Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo on a promising squad. The Cubs will certainly improve on their win total from last season, but don’t look for them to make a realistic championship run until at least two or three more years down the road, when that younger talent has a bit more seasoning.
On the south side of the Windy City, the Chicago White Sox have added first baseman Adam LaRoche and outfielder Melky Cabrera, among several other players, to their potent roster that includes the 2014 American League Rookie of the Year Jose Abreu. They are a much-improved team from last season, and have reasonable playoff aspirations. However, in a division with the Detroit Tigers and last year’s AL Champion Kansas City Royals, the Sox face an uphill climb.
The San Diego Padres sent shockwaves through the baseball world in December with their wheeling-and-dealing that landed them such stars as outfielders Matt Kemp and Justin Upton. San Diego also added catcher Derek Norris and infielder Wil Middlebrooks in a complete reshaping of its roster. There was not much for the Padres to build around, so they went for the reshaping approach. San Diego is likely in store for a competitive season, but an eventual defeat at the hands of division rivals Los Angeles and San Francisco.
On the other side of the country, the Miami Marlins have been on the cusp of winning for the past decade, and are convinced they have finally made the right moves to get back into the playoffs for the first time since 2003. First, they signed their franchise player and silver slugger Giancarlo Stanton to the richest deal in American sports history—13 years and $325 million. Couple that with the additions of Michael Morse, pitcher Matt Latos and second baseman Dee Gordon, who stole more bases last season than the Marlins did as a team, and Miami feels primed to challenge the Washington Nationals for the National League East division crown. The biggest problem facing the Marlins is that their ace pitcher, young Jose Fernandez, is still recovering from Tommy John surgery and will not return until midseason.
These were the biggest splashes of the MLB offseason, mostly made by teams trying to rejuvenate a formerly dismal club atmosphere. However, if history has taught us anything, it’s that dynasties are tough to unseat from victory. The Detroit Tigers still have as good a roster as any in the AL, and their division foe Kansas City Royals, have mostly the same squad that won the AL last season.
In the NL, Washington still has the best roster on paper, and although they haven’t enjoyed much playoff success, are likely to win the East again. The San Francisco Giants have won three of the past five World Series, and are still built like a championship team, boasting the best pitching staff in the game. The team most viable to defeat San Francisco, which has won nine consecutive postseason series, is St. Louis, who has one of the most experienced rosters in the game as well as the most passionate fan base.
Surprises will happen. Look no further than the 2014 Royals. But teams like the Padres and the Cubs will have to overcome the traditional powerhouses of the sport before they be recognized as formidable clubs. Who knows? This year may be the starting point of that era for one of these teams.