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Cubs open season with high hopes

A revamped roster and remodeled Wrigley await long-suffering fans.

CHICAGO - The new video board looms large beyond the left-field wall, a gigantic symbol of a new day and a new era at Wrigley Field.

The 101-year-old ballpark got a high-definition upgrade. So did the team that plays there.

The Chicago Cubs will be tested from the start when they send new ace Jon Lester to the mound against Adam Wainwright for the opener against the St. Louis Cardinals on Sunday night.

The prime-time matchup for the majors' first game of the season comes after a busy winter in which the Cubs made it clear they feel they are ready to hit another gear after a top-to-bottom overhaul that tested some fans' patience.

"We were pretty transparent: It was 'It's going to take a few years, we're going to have to do this the right way, that probably means a lot of losses,"' chairman Tom Ricketts said. "But I think right now, everyone knows that we've got a good young team and we've added some good veterans this offseason. We have a chance this year. We'll compete for our division title and everyone's excited about that."

The Cardinals, meanwhile, are seeking their fifth consecutive playoff appearance. The reigning NL Central champs lost to San Francisco in the League Championship Series a year ago, and then traded 15-game winner Shelby Miller for outfielder Jason Heyward.

They still figure to have a deep rotation, particularly if Michael Wacha can stay healthy. He missed most of the second half of last season because of a stress reaction in his shoulder and was still rusty in October. He surrendered the series-winning homer to Travis Ishikawa in Game 5 against the Giants.

"I like our five guys," Wainwright said. "I think we've got a very good, talented group here. The sky's the limit."

The Cubs believe they are headed for better days after five straight losing seasons and a 73-89 mark in 2014.

Chicago was one of the majors' most active teams in the offseason, deciding it was time to act after some of its prospects started to arrive in the majors, joining all-stars Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo.

The Cubs brought in one of the game's top managers in Joe Maddon after they initially told Rick Renteria he would be back for a second season. The cold-blooded change was a sign of their intentions, and the $155 million, six-year deal they gave Lester put the message in bold with a few exclamation marks.

They also traded for centerfielder Dexter Fowler and catcher Miguel Montero. But any significant climb into playoff contention could hinge on the development of their young players.

Top prospect Kris Bryant will spend at least the first few weeks in the minors despite a strong spring, but Jorge Soler figures to be in right field Sunday. His approach at the plate and arm strength impressed his new manager this spring.

Maddon also said he might have the pitcher bat eighth, perhaps on a more regular basis, in order to create in essence a second leadoff hitter in the ninth spot.

"I used it a lot with the [Tampa Bay] Rays last year, quite often when we played the National League," Maddon said. "I liked it."