By ANDREW SELIGMAN
CHICAGO (AP) As the curtain rises on the Theo Epstein era, there is optimism around the Chicago Cubs.
Of course, the anticipation is more for what the future holds than what's standing right in front of them, starting with Thursday's opener against Stephen Strasburg and the Washington Nationals.
"Every single year, there are teams that are going to surprise people, teams that are going to prove the experts wrong," general manager Jed Hoyer said Wednesday. "If that isn't the script, I certainly hope through the course of the year that we continue to add talent to our roster and build for a great day in the future, but I would never give away any one season. There's no reason given the personnel in that clubhouse and given the coaching staff we can't surprise a lot of people the way one or two teams does every single year."
If the Cubs do contend, it would be a big surprise.
They underwent a major overhaul in the offseason, bringing in Epstein as president of baseball operations and his former Red Sox colleague Hoyer as general manager. They hired Dale Sveum to replace fired manager Mike Quade and parted ways with Carlos Zambrano, Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Pena after going 71-91, but getting rid of that championship albatross will take even more time.
As it is, they haven't won it all since 1908, when the Model T was rolling off the assembly line, but there's a sense of hope with Epstein now in charge. After all, he put together the team that ended Boston's 86-year drought in 2004 and won another title in 2007, and the Cubs are counting on the new management team to produce similar results.
"I always think change is good, especially when you have people that are making changes whose track record is winning and winning a lot," infielder Jeff Baker said. "It's one of those things, you really want to get onboard with it and embrace it, be a part of that group that helps make that change."
There could be some bumps along the way, starting with a tough season-opening series.
The Nationals are aiming high after finishing third in the National League East at 80-81, and a big reason for that optimism is a pitching staff anchored by Strasburg.
This time last year, he was back in Florida and limited to throwing on flat ground as he rehabilitated his surgically repaired right elbow. Now, he's ready to start his first opener, in a fabled ballpark that he'll be visiting for the first time.
"It's a different atmosphere, so that's something I'm looking forward to," he said. "Just seeing a packed house, crazy fans and stuff. It's going to be a fun time. And hopefully we go out there and get the job done."
Strasburg made a spectacular debut for the Nationals in June 2010, striking out 14 Pirates in seven innings and earning the victory. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 draft went 5-3 with a 2.91 ERA and 92 strikeouts in 12 starts before elbow problems led to Tommy John surgery on Sept. 3 of that year.
He returned last September and went 1-1 with a 1.50 ERA in five starts, and with their ace ready from the start, the Nationals believe they are armed to contend. Strasburg leads a staff that includes Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson along with a strong bullpen.
"We can win a lot of ballgames, and we should win a lot of ballgames," second baseman Danny Espinosa said. "It's not a time of building anymore. This isn't just young guys, and we need to build, and everyone needs to step into their paths. We need to start winning now. This is too good of a team. There's too much talent here to lose."
For the Cubs, the process might take a while. Epstein has made it clear they need to strengthen their farm system to build depth and look to the future while trying to be competitive at the moment.
They added outfielder David DeJesus through free agency, third baseman Ian Stewart in a trade with Rockies, right-hander Chris Volstad in the deal with the Marlins for Zambrano, left-hander Travis Wood in a trade with the Reds and a prospect in first baseman Anthony Rizzo through a deal with the Padres. Wood and Rizzo are opening the season in the minors.
"It's optimistic," second baseman Darwin Barney said. "It's a belief in knowing why we're here. From Day 1, the point to us was we're here to win a championship."
NOTES: Hoyer and Sveum said 1B Bryan LaHair is "50-50" to play Thursday. He has been dealing with a back problem the past few days.
AP Sports Writer Howard Fendrich in Washington contributed to this report.
Updated April 4, 2012