Are the revamped Cubs ready for prime time?
What better way to find out than in prime time against the established class of the National League Central?
The Cardinals, clearly, are a team the Cubs are going to have to take down consistently if Chicago is going to add a National League Central championship flag to the Wrigley Field renovations list. So while Opening Night (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2) certainly won't decide the Central, it could go down as an early tone-setter in a really deep division.
"I want this NL Central to be considered the best division in baseball," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "I want it to be that strong. The stronger it is, the faster we get better. That's the way I look at it."
Under new management (Maddon), with a new ace (Jon Lester) and a couple new faces (Dexter Fowler, Miguel Montero) in a lineup featuring some of the most tantalizing young talent in the game (coming soon: Kris Bryant), the Cubs are looking to make a substantial rise from 89 losses a season ago to legit postseason contention.
Anthony Rizzo went so far as to say an NL Central title is "going to happen this year" on the North Side.
In order for Rizzo's bold prediction to come true, a number of factors and developmental strides have to line up for Maddon's Cubs. But first and foremost, Lester has to live up to his $155 million billing.
Lester last pitched in a "big league" game on March 16. He was scratched from his next scheduled start with what the Cubs called a "dead arm," and he made his last two exhibition outings on the Minor League side. As a result of that altered spring slate, Lester's pitch count will be a little more restricted than usual on Opening Night, so we likely won't be seeing a shutout from the Chicago side.
What we'll see, instead, is an established No. 1 looking to settle in quickly with a new squad, dueling with an equally respected ace in Adam Wainwright while trying to tame a Cards club with a much different look near the top of the order.
For the Cardinals, Jason Heyward was the key offseason trade acquisition. And Heyward's performance from the No. 2 spot in Mike Matheny's lineup -- a lineup that struggled to consistently put runs on the board last season -- is a big X-factor on this team and in this division. Heyward has proven himself as an elite defender in right, but entering his age-25 season and nearing free agency, he has to unlock his power potential.
The Cubs, of course, are hoping to unlock their potential this season, as well, and both sides in this Opening Series know these games might have added magnitude in 2015.
"They have a chance to be very good. We have a chance to be very good," Wainwright said. "We'll see where that goes. But I do remember playing games there [in 2007 and '08] that were big energy, fans going crazy, both teams were in the pennant race. That's fun. It's a fun place to play when it's like that."
Obviously, it hasn't been like that in a while. The Cardinals are the Central club with four straight NL Championship Seres berths, two World Series appearances and one title just in the past four years. That's a level the Cubs hope to get to, and it all starts Sunday night.
"We can't expect anything to be given to us," said Maddon, who actually grew up a Cardinals fan. "If we're going to ascend within this division, we're going to have to take it."