Play Ball: Cubs, Cards lift the lid on 2015 MLB season at Wrigley

( – Few teams generated more buzz this offseason than the
Chicago Cubs.

The St. Louis Cardinals, though, still think they are the team to beat in the
National League Central and will try to prove as much on Sunday when they kick
off the 2015 Major League Baseball season against the Cubs at almost newly-
renovated Wrigley Field.

St. Louis won its second straight division title last season and advanced to
the NLCS for the fourth consecutive year. In fact, the Cards have now reached
the postseason 11 times since 2000.

Basically, they are as about as automatic as you can get. And the same should
hold true this season, as they return essentially the same squad plus one big

Of course, the Cardinals go into this season with heavy hearts after prized
prospect Oscar Taveras and his girlfriend were killed in a drunk-driving
accident in the Dominican Republic during last year’s postseason. Taveras, the
driver, was reportedly five times over the legal blood alcohol limit at the
time of the crash.

Taveras’ death was the impetus behind the Cards’ biggest offseason move, as
they acquired outfielder Jason Heyward from the Atlanta Braves. Heyward fits
the Cards lineup like a glove and a change of scenery coupled with it being a
contract year could be just what he needs to start fulfilling some of that
promise we saw early in his career.

Matt Holliday and Matt Adams will provide the pop, provided the latter can
stay healthy. Speaking of health, the Cards can ill afford to lose catcher
Yadier Molina again for an extended amount of time.

Although he hit a career-worst 11 home runs last season, Heyward should still
help a lineup that last season finished 23rd in the majors in runs scored.
They also ranked last in the NL with just 105 home runs.

One cause for concern could be in the rotation. On paper it stacks up with any
team in the league, but ace Adam Wainwright stated over the winter that his
arm was so weak at the end of last season that he was barely able to open a
soda can.

After winning 20 games in the regular season Wainwright struggled in the
playoffs. He had Tommy John surgery four years ago, but since the start of the
2013 season no pitcher in baseball has thrown more innings than Wainwright,
who has logged 519 2/3 (including the postseason).

Maybe that is why the Cards traded for John Lackey at last year’s deadline. He
gives them a solid veteran option along with righty Lance Lynn. The hope is
that Michael Wacha regains the form from two seasons ago and that somehow
lefty Jaime Garcia can return after two injury-plagued seasons.

Despite an abdominal strain that only allowed Wainwright to make three
Grapefruit League starts, he will still draw his fifth Opening Day start
against a Cubs team that is in search of their first world title since 1908.

Still, there is a ton of optimism surrounding the Cubs despite losing 89 games
last year and bringing up the rear in the division for the fifth straight

Not only did the Cubs add perhaps the best manager in baseball in Joe Maddon,
they paired him with ace left-hander Jon Lester, who agreed to a 6-year, $155
million free agent deal.

“We can’t expect anything to be given to us,” said Maddon. “If we’re going to
ascend within this division, we’re going to have to take it.”

Lester is one of the best lefties in the game and will spearhead a rotation
that should be pretty solid. Behind him will be righty Jake Arrieta, who
enjoyed a breakout season in 2014, while righty Jason Hammel returns to the
Cubs after being dealt by them to Oakland at last year’s trade deadline.

Lester has been dealing with a tired arm this spring and may be limited on
Sunday. This will be just his second-ever start at Wrigley Field. His first
resulted in a win for the Boston Red Sox back in 2012.

Few, if any teams have the young nucleus the Cubs have. Infielder Starlin
Castro and first baseman Anthony Rizzo were All-Stars last season, while
prospects Arismendy Alcantara and Jorge Soler all started to contribute at the
big league level in 2014.

Kris Bryant will join them at some point this year, but the big question is
when? He did more than enough this spring to show that he belonged on the
Opening Day roster, but the Cubs held him back to delay the start of his
service time.

In addition to the roster upgrades, Chicago spent more than $375 million in
renovations to its historic ballpark, but it apparently will take a little
longer than expected. The hope is that everything will be completed by 2019.

“It looks like Baghdad,” Hammel told the Chicago Sun-Times. “But you know
there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow there. I’m excited, man.”