CHICAGO -- The Cubs' 2014 season began without great expectations. It was meant to be another step in the rebuilding process.
But things changed. There was a buzz when Jake Arrieta nearly no-hit the Red Sox on June 30 at Fenway Park. It got louder when Javier Baez made his Major League debut in Colorado. The volume increased when Jorge Soler homered in his first Major League at-bat and every time Kyle Hendricks took the mound.
If Cubs fans were excited about seeing the young talent they'd heard so much about, the enthusiasm reached a fever pitch when Joe Maddon was introduced as the Cubs' new manager. The Cubs then celebrated the holidays early by signing free agent Jon Lester.
The rebuilding isn't over, and the reality is that the Cubs are coming off a losing record and a fifth-place finish for the fifth consecutive season. But nobody seems to remember what happened during the regular season, especially after Maddon and Lester donned Cubs caps.
"As a whole, [signing Lester] probably signals to folks who care that we're going to be pretty competitive here and it's a nice place to be," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. "We want players here who see the merits of what we're doing, who are motivated as Jon was, with the chance to do something special and win a World Series with the Cubs.
"There's a lot to sell players on -- great city, great fan base, historic ballpark, but most importantly, the single greatest pursuit left in sports. It kind of sells itself."
Before making plans for next October, let's look back at 2014 one last time. Here are the top five storylines for the Cubs.
5. Welcome back, Starlin
Starlin Castro bounced back from a difficult 2013 season to return to All-Star form, batting .292 and matching his career high with 14 home runs. What people forget is that Castro is only 24 and has been learning on the job since making his big league debut in May 2010.
"He's really talented with a bat," Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said of the three-time All-Star shortstop. "There's no question he's always going to be a guy who puts the ball in play. I believe there's a lot of power there and that will start showing up."
The Cubs saw that power emerge in August, specifically with a long homer Aug. 30 at St. Louis. Unfortunately, Castro fractured his left ankle in an awkward slide at home on Sept. 2 and didn't return the rest of the season. Said Hoyer: "The biggest disappointment in him getting hurt is that it felt like [the power] was going to happen."
4. Ace of the staff
Arrieta's season didn't start well. He missed the first month because of tightness in his right shoulder but made up for that. On June 24, Arrieta threw six perfect innings against the Reds. In his next start, June 30 at Fenway Park, he earned a rare ovation from the Fenway Park crowd. Arrieta gave up one hit over 7 2/3 innings, striking out 10 and issuing one walk, as the Cubs posted a 2-0 Interleague victory over the Red Sox in front of 37,814 at Fenway Park. "It's a special night," Arrieta said, "and special to do it in this ballpark."
On Sept. 16 against the Reds, Arrieta notched his first complete game, striking out 13 and throwing a one-hitter in a 7-0 victory. The right-hander is the first Cubs pitcher to take no-hitters into the seventh inning three times in a season since 1950.
Acquired from the Orioles in July 2013 in the Scott Feldman deal, Arrieta emerged as the Cubs' ace. Said pitching coach Chris Bosio: "He's found his routine, he trusts his stuff, he's matured as a pitcher." The Cubs expect Arrieta to only get better.
3. New kids on the block
First, it was Arismendy Alcantara. Then Hendricks. Then Baez. Then Soler. The kids kept coming and didn't disappoint. Baez hit a go-ahead home run in the 12th inning of his debut in Colorado and slugged two more in his third game, but he finished with an alarming number of strikeouts (95 in 213 at-bats). Said Iowa manager Marty Pevey: "It'll be a learning curve for Javy. He'll want to hit every ball 600 feet." Anyone who has seen Baez's violent swing would agree.
Soler topped Baez's debut when he homered in his first big league at-bat on Aug. 27 in Cincinnati. The Cuban outfielder showed much more discipline at the plate, batting .292 overall and .333 with runners in scoring position.
Hendricks went 4-0 with a 1.69 ERA in six August starts, and reminded many of another Cubs pitcher who relied on location: Hall of Famer Greg Maddux. Alcantara, who was promoted when Darwin Barney left to be with family for the birth of his third child, went 4-for-5 in his second game. Alcantara kept on hitting, and was batting .282 when Barney was designated for assignment July 22. Alcantara showed his versatility by moving to center field when Baez arrived and took over second base.
2. New kid in town
In the past three offseasons, the Cubs have signed free-agent pitchers with the intention of flipping them at the Trade Deadline for prospects. Not this year. The Cubs brought back Jason Hammel, who had signed a one-year deal prior to the 2014 season and was then dealt to the Athletics, along with Jeff Samardzija, on July 4 for highly touted prospects Addison Russell and Billy McKinney.
But the biggest indicator that the game plan has moved ahead is the addition of Lester, who signed a six-year, $155 million contract on Dec. 15. One of the top pitchers on the free-agent market, Lester, who already has two World Series rings with the Red Sox, decided to reunite with Epstein and Hoyer.
What made Lester say yes? He liked the challenge of helping the Cubs win a World Series for the first time in 100-plus years. Lester, who turned down more money to sign with the Cubs, believed in Epstein and Hoyer when they talked about the impact players in the organization. Lester was a Minor Leaguer in the Red Sox organization in 2004 when Boston ended its 86-year championship drought. Now, he's looking for another ring with the Cubs.
1. Change at the top
Cubs executives felt Rick Renteria did the best he could in his rookie year and met with him in October to discuss the 2015 season. Then Maddon became available and everything changed. Renteria was dismissed Oct. 31 and Maddon, who opted out of his contract with the Rays, was hired three days later, signing a five-year, $25 million contract. The move wasn't made because of anything Renteria did but because of what the Cubs feel Maddon can do.
Maddon, 60, didn't waste any time exciting Cubs nation at his introductory news conference. Said Maddon: "We're going to set our mark high and I'm going to talk playoffs and World Series this year and I'm going to believe it."
After three seasons focused on rebuilding, the Cubs now shift to being more competitive with the hiring of the two-time American League Manager of the Year who guided the Rays to six winning seasons in nine years in the tough AL East, reaching the World Series in 2008. He's the first Cubs manager with his own restaurant -- Ava in Tampa -- and Twitter account. Will he invite a Chicago blues band to the clubhouse? We'll see.