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Cubs, Nats, Padres rev up competition by landing aces

Clubs not typically known for making free-agent splashes take aim at next level

The winners in the chases for the big three of the free-agent pitching class illustrate the spread of both baseball's competitive balance and its prosperity.

The Cubs, the Nationals and the Padres (in chronological order) landed the leading starting pitchers on the market. Not all that long ago, none of these clubs would have been involved in this discussion. It would have been more likely the Yankees, the Red Sox and -- why not? -- either the Yankees or Red Sox, again.

Here, you get three teams in two distinct situations. The Nationals are, at least in terms of regular-season performance, one of baseball's elite teams. The Cubs and the Padres are both involved in what appear to be comprehensive makeovers.

When the Nats landed Max Scherzer, they were not following the typical free-agent trail, spending big to fill a need. They already had one of the very best rotations in the game. Washington already had put up the National League's best regular-season records in two of the past three years.

Video: Outlook: Scherzer remains top-tier pitching option

The Nationals had not yet succeeded in the shorter postseason test, but they didn't require a lot of help. The acquisition of Scherzer, along with the pledge by Washington's front office that none of the other starters would be dealt, meant that the Nats were taking the necessary steps, expending the necessary resources, to reach for greatness in 2015. Washington will have a one-of-a-kind starting rotation with which to chase that status.

The Cubs, on the other hand, are coming off five straight losing seasons in which they finished a cumulative 125 games out of first place. But that all appears to be safely in the "so what?" category at this point.

The Cubs already had an impressive core of position-player prospects ready to achieve. They added a leading-edge manager, Joe Maddon. They added extremely useful veteran catchers in Miguel Montero and David Ross, and an accomplished player in outfielder Dexter Fowler. But the prize acquisition, as far as this discussion takes us, is the recognizable ace at the top of the rotation, Jon Lester.

It was the acquisition of Lester that turned the Cubs from a highly-promising operation into a club that could win now. The NL Central may be very difficult. The Cardinals have become annual residents at the NL Championship Series. The still-developing Pirates have qualified for the postseason in two successive seasons, and they aren't going away.

Still, the presence of Lester atop their rotation makes the Cubs genuine contenders. It's a major change of status, expectation and direction for the North Side franchise.

Video: Outlook: Lester should thrive in the National League

But nobody outdoes the Padres when it comes to an abrupt and pronounced change of direction. New general manager A.J. Preller has produced a completely revamped outfield featuring Matt Kemp, Wil Myers and Justin Upton.

For the Padres, who have struggled mightily to score in recent seasons, suddenly there is run-production potential all over the outfield. And Derek Norris, behind the plate, will be a major offensive upgrade, as well.

But the final piece of this thorough offseason renovation project came in the area of the Padres' greatest strength, pitching. There were talented pitchers already on hand in San Diego's rotation, but there wasn't a proven No. 1 starter.

Video: Matt Kemp lauds A.J. Preller for being 'rockstar GM'

Presto. James Shields; a highly durable, highly successful pitcher who would be as valuable in the clubhouse as he should be on the mound. Shields has been through this before in both Tampa Bay and Kansas City, two clubs with long histories of defeat that each reached a World Series.

Shields' presence in these conversions was no coincidence. He has been a picture of dependability and leadership. The right-hander appears to be ideal for the Padres' situation.

And so, there is a remarkable change in the expectations for the nature of the NL West in 2015. In recent seasons, it was all about the Giants, loaded with pitching, who win everything in even-numbered years, and/or the Dodgers, who would invariably be loaded with talent.

Video: Shields one of game's most proven and consistent arms

Now, the Padres must be included in the contending conversation. And not as a matter of superficial politeness. With the addition of Shields, they have filled in the spot that a postseason qualifier must fill.

Two-thirds of the NL races have been made even more crowded by clubs that have done what it takes to get proven, established, accomplished starting pitchers. The Padres and the Cubs have done plenty of other necessary things, too, but this is where it starts.

The broadening of the base of competition, more clubs with real chances, is exactly what the Cubs and Padres fans need. But it is also healthy for baseball, the game.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for
Read More: Jon Lester, James Shields, Max Scherzer