By Larry Fine
(Reuters) - The thaw from winter's teeth-chattering cold is underway, perhaps most noticeably for eager Chicago Cubs fans with this week's heartwarming arrival of pitchers and catchers at Major League Baseball spring training camps.
As Arizona Diamondback players report on Wednesday to Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, a half-hour drive from downtown Phoenix, the long-suffering Cubs are the unaccustomed, heavy 4-1 favorites to win the 2016 World Series.
Hope springs eternal with the beginning of spring training in Arizona and Florida, with all teams gearing up to start all level when Major League Baseball's marathon 162-game season opens in April.
For the Cubs and their fans, it seems like an eternity since they ruled the baseball world having not won a World Series since 1908.
With a roster full of young talent including sluggers Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber, and a pitching staff topped by Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta, the Cubs reached the NL Championship Series last year after posting the third best record in the majors.
Determined to snap the longest championship drought in North American professional sports, Cubs general manager Theo Epstein kept busy in the offseason, signing outfielder Jason Heyward and starter John Lackey from division-rival St. Louis and adding super-utility player Ben Zobrist.
Following the Cubs in preseason odds were the 2015 NL champion New York Mets and San Francisco Giants, both rated 8-1 choices to win the championship by online betting site Bovada.
The Los Angeles Dodgers and Washington Nationals follow at 10-1, with the National League's leading teams all priced ahead of the top American League choices.
The Boston Red Sox, AL East cellar dwellers in 2015, signed free agent starter David Price, who last year helped Toronto reach the postseason for the first time since 1993, and added closer Craig Kimbrel to rate a 12-1 choice with the Blue Jays.
To offset the loss of Price, Toronto expect young starter Marcus Stroman to return from injury to pick up the slack and strong-armed young Aaron Sanchez might join him in the rotation.
Reigning MLB champions the Kansas City Royals did not make major additions but re-signed free agent outfielder Alex Gordon and brought in starter Ian Kennedy to compensate for the loss of Johnny Cueto, who signed a free agent deal with the Giants.
Kansas City were rated 16-1 choice to repeat, followed by the up-and-coming Houston Astros at 18-1 while the Yankees were a joint sixth pick at 22-1.
Among teams making offseason splashes were the Diamondbacks, who bolstered their rotation by signing free agent Zack Greinke away from the Los Angeles Dodgers and trading for Shelby Miller.
Two other AL Central clubs made bold moves in hopes of challenging the Royals.
The Cubs' crosstown neighbors the White Sox beefed up their infield by dealing for second baseman Brett Lawrie and slugging third baseman Todd Frazier, while Detroit added starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann and outfielder Justin Upton over the winter.
(Reporting by Larry Fine in New York; Editing by Frank Pingue)