The Sporting News apparently couldn't wait until January was even half over to make its pick. They've picked the Cubs. Jesse Spector's article cites the addition of Joe Maddon and Jon Lester as major factors, in addition to the "good things" going on in the bullpen with Neil Ramirez, Pedro Strop, Hector Rondon and the recently-added Jason Motte.
Here's the thing that apparently put Spector over the top about the 2015 Cubs:
The real reason to be excited, though, is the Cubs’ bountiful farm system, coupled with savvy trades, is starting to bear fruit for the lineup. First baseman Anthony Rizzo (acquired from the Padres when he was 22) and home-grown shortstop Starlin Castro are the cornerstones of the lineup, both legitimate stars entering their age-25 seasons. The fact that the Cubs were able to get significant action in the major leagues last year for Arismendy Alcantara, Jorge Soler and Javier Baez will help those players settle into their first full big-league campaigns. Eventually, Kris Bryant will be along as well.
Spector says Maddon is a good manager for this type of young team because:
he does not put pressure on the players. He allows them to be themselves. There will be a lot of opportunities for the Cubs to feel pressure, including being picked by certain national outlets to win the World Series. Having a manager who is as cool, calm, and collected as there is in the game should make a difference.
Maddon will be far different than any Cubs manager in recent memory, that's for sure, and perhaps like none since the Cubs were winning pennants in the 1920s and 1930s under Joe McCarthy, Gabby Hartnett and Charlie Grimm, all fine managers for their time. But modern players need a different sort of man leading them, and whatever Maddon is baseball-wise, he's surely different in the way he approaches the game as a part of life, as he noted in his introductory news conference.
Well. Am I buying this? Optimistic me? I've certainly changed my tune over the last six months or so as the process of rebuilding accelerated into actual "building" for contention as soon as this upcoming summer. But to win it all? The playoffs, as you certainly know, are a crapshoot so if you can get in, if you have a hot pitching staff or a lockdown bullpen, you can run the table or at least come close to doing so, as the Royals did this past year. The Giants showed how one pitcher can dominate a World Series.
The Cubs will be in the conversation, of that I'm nearly certain. They've added enough parts and have others maturing so that they ought to at least be in the 83-85 win range, which keeps you in the wild-card race. Get there and good things can happen.
Win it all, Sporting News? That'd be nice. But I won't predict a World Series title, not this year, anyway.