By Larry Fine
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Optimism among baseball's longshots abounds at the start of the new season, spread by last year's rousing run by the small market Kansas City Royals, and the long-suffering Chicago Cubs have caught the spring fever.
The Cubbies, who have gone 107 years without a World Series title, head a list of Cinderellas hungering for a taste of postseason success and open the season on Sunday against the visiting St. Louis Cardinals.
All the other clubs begin their 162-game season on Monday.
The Royals ended a 29-year playoff drought with an inspiring battle all the way to a thrilling Game Seven of the World Series before falling to the San Francisco Giants.
Their level of past frustration pales in comparison to the Cubs, who last appeared in the Fall Classic in 1945 and lost six other times in the Series since their last MLB title in 1908.
After years of floundering, the Cubbies have collected the best group of prospects in baseball and added to their promising core in the offseason with the signing of ace pitcher Jon Lester and a new manager in Joe Maddon.
Third baseman Kris Bryant, rated number one prospect by Baseball America, led the minor leagues in home runs last year and paced spring training hitters with nine roundtrippers.
Shortstop Addison Russell is ranked the third best prospect and Cuban slugging outfielder Jorge Soler is 12th for the Cubs.
Bryant, Russell and young power-hitting second baseman Javier Baez will not open the season in Chicago in order to extend the Cubs' hold on them for an extra year, but could join the team later in the month.
While the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers loom as potential NL powerhouses in the East and West with loads of hitting and pitching talent, other Cinderella candidates are also dreaming big.
The Cleveland Indians, whose last title came in 1948, hope Cy Young winner Corey Kluber will help them overtake perennial AL Central power Detroit and the Royals, who lost key pitchers in Max Scherzer and James Shields, respectively.
Boston, last in the AL East in 2014, beefed up their offense by adding Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez, but the loss of Lester leaves doubts about their pitching in what could be a wide open East.
Toronto, suffering the longest current stretch of 21 years without making the playoffs, added offense with third baseman Josh Donaldson and catcher Russell Martin, while Yankee hopes rest on the delicate elbow of ace Masahiro Tanaka.
Last year's AL East winners Baltimore lost slugger Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis giving the others fresh hope.
Seattle beefed up by signing Cruz, last season's MLB home run leader for the Orioles, in a quest to reach their first World Series since joining MLB in 1977.
Baseball fans will also be subjected to the renewal of the Alex Rodriguez soap opera with the 39-year-old slugger back with the New York Yankees after a one-year doping ban.
In South Florida, focus will be on Giancarlo Stanton, whose $325 million, 10-year deal with the Miami Marlins is the largest ever in North American sports.
Stanton will be adjusting to a special protective helmet after missing the end of last season after getting hit in the face with a pitch.
Opening Night marks the beginning of the first season under new commissioner Rob Manfred.
Manfred moved from deputy under long-serving commissioner Bud Selig to the sheriff and among his first orders is to speed up the pace of play to appeal to younger audiences.
In an effort to quicken the pace of play, a countdown clock for breaks between innings will be used while umpires enforce a rule requiring hitters to stay in the batter's box rather than step out between pitches to adjust equipment.
"We're not looking to fundamentally alter the way the game is played," Manfred told New York's WFAN radio. "We're looking to remove the dead time."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)