ESPN’s Schoenfield ranks Cubs top team heading into 2016

Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The story of the Cubs has changed quite a bit in the last 365 days. A year ago at this time, projectors estimated the club would make great strides in 2015, improving from an 89-loss 2014 and perhaps even challenging Cincinnati and Milwaukee for third place in the competitive NL Central. Many believed 2016 would be the year the up-and-coming major league squad would arrive. But one season—and an NLCS berth—later, it’s harder to find anyone not picking the Cubs to make the postseason.

ESPN’s David Schoenfield unveiled the top portion of his team rankings heading into the 2016 season Tuesday. The publication’s senior writer stuck to the script and picked the Cubs as his No. 1 team.

Most intriguing player: Jason Heyward’s big contract and move to center field puts him in the spotlight. Heyward seems to have grown comfortable with the kind of player he is, so the fear that he may try to do much and struggle is probably overblown. In fact, I wonder if Joe Maddon puts him in the leadoff spot since there isn’t another obvious candidate. Maddon could run out a lineup of Heyward, [Ben] Zobrist, Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Jorge Soler, Miguel Montero and Addison Russell. There’s power, there’s OBP, there’s left-right balance, there’s youth, there are MVP candidates, there are no easy at-bats for opposing pitchers. Good luck, National League.

The final word: Barring a long list of injuries, the Cubs look like a powerhouse. They’re loaded with depth and versatility in both position players and starting pitching. Unlike the 2015 Nationals, they also have the right manager to make sure there’s no coasting on hype or clubhouse issues that incinerate the team. Considering I think the Pirates and Cardinals fall back a bit this year, the Cubs win the tough NL Central pretty easily. Then comes the postseason …

Many of the shortcomings of the 2015 squad were addressed this offseason, as the club improved its outfield defense with the acquisition of Heyward and added necessary pitching depth with John Lackey, Adam Warren and a slew of bullpen arms. The hope entering this season has shifted from surpassing the division’s bottom dwellers to being the last team standing.

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