(Reuters) - The Chicago Cubs made huge strides last year, and a series of off-season moves have raised expectations among their legion of fans that this might finally be the year they end their 107-year World Series drought.
Though they were ultimately swept by the New York Mets in the National League Championship Series, going deep into the postseason was a victory of sorts for long-suffering Cubs fans.
With National League Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta again leading the way on the mound, and off-season acquisitions of pitcher John Lackey, outfielder Jason Heyward and infielder Ben Zobrist, the Cubs rightly open the season on Sunday as favorites to win the 2016 World Series.
But anything can happen over the course of a 162-game Major League Baseball regular season that spans six months and it would be premature to anoint the Cubs with any crown.
For starters, Chicago play in a tough NL Central that last year saw the St. Louis Cardinals (100-62), Pittsburgh Pirates (98-64) and Cubs (97-65) post the three best regular season records in the majors and produce both NL wild-card teams.
There is no indication the Cardinals and Pirates will significantly regress this year, which means the Cubs could have another excellent season and yet still not win their division, let alone the World Series.
Arrieta will be the Opening Day starter, heading a rotation that features veterans Lackey, Jon Lester and Jason Hammel, and third-year right-hander Kyle Hendricks.
But Lester's ERA edged up last year to 3.35 while 37-year-old Lackey has logged nearly 2,500 big league innings. If Arrieta happens to suffer a major injury, suddenly the Cubs look vulnerable.
At bat, the Cubs have plenty of firepower.
It’s difficult to find anyone who does not think 24-year-old Kris Bryant will be a superstar. He batted .275 in his rookie season in 2015 with 26 home runs.
The Cubs' Addison Russell (22), Kyle Schwarber (23) and Anthony Rizzo (26) also have age on their side and batting talent by the bucketful.
Throw in the addition of Heyward, who batted .293 for St. Louis last year, and Zobrist, who batted .284 for the World Series-winning Kansas City Royals, and Chicago have as strong a line-up, top to bottom, as anyone in the league.
The Cubs own the dubious distinction of having the longest title drought in North American professional sports. Their fans are, by necessity, a patient lot but their mantra must surely be, if not this year, then when?
(Reporting by Andrew Both in Cary, North Carolina; Editing by Frank Pingue)