By Jason Keidel

So what was it?

Did the media and masses think that 2016 was an aberration? That the Cubs barely bumped that 108-year hex off their heads and their history — needing seven games, extra innings and a divinely placed rain delay to make it happen — and now have resettled back to their natural place?

It doesn’t have to be that way. The Cubs are loaded, with a nuclear lineup, and a rotation that is among the best in baseball, especially with the recent signing of free-agent ace Yu Darvish.

A comprehensive look at big-league rotations by Bleacher Report yielded the top-10 staffs, with the Cubs landing at No. 8 in all MLB. But that was four weeks ago, before the Cubs landed Darvish. Clearly his arrival nudges the Cubs up a few rungs, perhaps cracking the top five.

No doubt the Cubs dipped in production all around the diamond last year. Whether it’s a World Series hangover or just a matter of not making the grade, their MLB-best 2.96 ERA as a starting staff was sublime. To have a sub-3.00 ERA for an entire rotation, in this era of slugging, was startling. As was their encore, which saw their rotation roughed-up for a full run more per game, an aggregate 4.06 ERA.

According to a report from CBSSports.com, Jake Arrieta turned down the big money they just gave Darvish ($126 million over six years). The same report says the Cubs didn’t give him much time to accept the offer. But Arrieta still likely regrets his decision, as the free-agent pitcher is still toiling in the Hot Stove, unsigned almost into March. The Cubs were never going to sign both aces in the same winter. Both pitchers turn 32 this year, but clearly the Cubs felt Darvish had more fastballs left in the tank. Perhaps there’s some prescience, as all teams can use pitching, yet none have courted Arrieta with a fraction of the traction we saw with Darvish.

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Either way, it’s odd to see the Cubs so lightly regarded this spring. The talk and chalk of this young year centers around a group of five clubs. Let’s present them in order of their Vegas odds to win the World Series (according to OddsShark) — Los Angeles Dodgers, Houston Astros, New York Yankees, Washington Nationals, and Cleveland Indians. The Cubs are tied with the Red Sox at 10-to-1 to win the 2018 Fall Classic.

Even with their somewhat sagging 2017 campaign, the Cubs still won 92 games, won the NL Central, reached the playoffs, and beat the favored Nats in the NLDS before falling to the pennant-winning Dodgers in the NLCS. They replaced Arrieta with Darvish, so the only starter lost is John Lackey, who wasn’t going to lead any staff to a World Series.

A rotation with Darvish, Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana, and Tyler Chatwood should impress enough pundits to make them a top-five club, but they aren’t right now. The Indians, whom the Cubs defeated in the 2016 World Series, always seem to stub their toe somewhere before reaching their potential. And the Nationals, forever loaded and favored to make a deep October run, can’t seem to bag a single playoff series, and keep firing qualified managers, like Dusty Baker, to keep it that way.

Maybe this is Cleveland’s year. Perhaps it’s Washington’s time. But the Cubs are stacked, and are hardly just a pitching-dependent club. Their lineup should put ample fear in foes. Last year the Cubs were No. 4 in MLB in runs scored (822), sixth in OPS, and ninth in home runs. Their core sluggers are quite young and quite gifted, from Anthony Rizzo to Kris Bryant to Kyle Schwarber, none of whom are older than 28.

And they still have their goofball-in-residence, Joe Maddon, in the dugout. The quirky manager is caught in a 1960s time loop, drives around spring training in his mobile home, and is more likely to be found in a trailer park than a swanky hotel. Maddon was shredded for his handling of the club’s bullpen, especially in the ’16 World Series. But didn’t they win it? And isn’t Maddon often either Manager of the Year or in the top-three in the voting? If he fled Chicago today, wouldn’t there be a stack of contract offers tomorrow?

Perhaps the world still sees them as the pre-curse Cubs. Perhaps it will take one more World Series ring to truly remake their image. They’re certainly good enough to get there, even if the odds don’t say so.

Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.

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