Chicago Cubs: Five things to watch for this offseason

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Everything has changed for the Chicago Cubs. After breaking the longest drought in sports history, they may no longer be the lovable losers. In fact, they aren’t. But if you thought that embracing the target was important this season, wait till 2017.

The Chicago Cubs have been riding a wave of euphoria since the defeated the Cleveland Indians to win their first World Series in 108 years. But as things start to settle, it’ll be back to work for many of the Cubs. David Ross gets to ride off into the sunset a champion. But there are other questions for this team as we head to the winter meetings.

Dexter Fowler has declined his option, after taking less to be with the Cubs last season. He proved many wrong and set himself up for a big payday. The Cubs declined Jason Hammel‘s option, making him a free agent this winter. Hammel won 15 games for the Cubs, but there has always been some unrest between him and Joe Maddon.

It’s early, but we take a look at some of the storylines of the Cubs offseason–and what they’ll need to accomplish this winter if they hope to make it back to the World Series again next year.

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Is it Almora’s job for the taking?

With Fowler declining his option and electing free agency, center field appears to be open for Albert Almora, Jr. to take–or is it? The loss of Fowler cannot be overstated. He was a critical part of the team’s success this year. And while Almora has shown capable, there’s no guarantee he’s going to step in and do the job as well as Fowler.

What he brought to the leadoff spot was an on-base machine. The hashtag was spawned, #YouGoWeGo, and for good measure. His ability to get on at the top of the lineup set up opportunities for guys like Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo–and they took advantage of them. And in his injury-shortened season, his home run total of 13 was second-best in his career (17 for the Cubs in 2015).

Almora is a better defender, although Fowler made adjustments this year that made him appear to be a solid option in center field. In 47 games, Almora hit .277 with an OBP of .308. That’s well behind Fowler’s .393, but it was only his rookie season.

The question of Almora taking over is posed because–well–the Cubs will still have talks with Fowler to return. He’s been tendered a qualifying offer of $17.2 million but is likely to reject the offer. The Cubs could still put a multi-year deal together that pays him what he deserves without breaking the bank. But he may be ready for his next challenge and ready to go.

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Schwarber proves why he was worth keeping

After Kyle Schwarber tore his ACL and MCL in the opening series, most of us didn’t expect to see him again unto Spring Training. There were whispers. Could he come back for the playoffs? What if we made it to the World Series? But those were ignored by almost every media outlet. Until it actually happened. What was possibly the best-kept secret was unleashed, and Schwarber was going to DH for the Cubs. Ben Zobrist had a great series, but Schwarber was right behind him on the list.

So now comes the question, what to do with him? Most said he couldn’t be a catcher. Others point to the injury as to why he shouldn’t play the outfield. But the fact is the kid can hit, and the Cubs planned on figuring it out as they go. So what’s the best plan for him?

By spring, Schwarber will be at 100 percent, no restrictions. With the retirement of Ross, I think you’ll see him slide into a role similar to what Willson Contreras did before taking over most of the catching duties. He’ll likely see time behind the plate with one pitcher, then slide into the outfield when not catching. This would, of course, be the “plan” they had last year that didn’t happen.

Contreras is without a doubt the catcher of the “future”, even though he’s here. With Miguel Montero in his final year in 2017, the Cubs may look to utilize the time with him to help mentor Schwarber. But don’t discount Montero’s bat, which came to life in the final weeks of the season. Where he plays will be questioned, but why he’s with the Cubs will not.

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As Hammel departs, who steps in as the fifth starter?

The obvious choice here for the Cubs is Mike Montgomery. After establishing himself as a spot starter/reliever late in the season, he may very well be the reason the Cubs decided to decline Hammel’s option. But this isn’t a done deal for the Cubs, as they could pursue other options as well.

The Cubs have a few players they could look to deal for controllable options, and Jorge Soler continues to be at the top of the list. Operating under the assumption that Almora takes over in center and Schwarber, Zobrist and Kris Bryant see time in left–Soler may be left out.  He’s under contract through 2020, and there’s still potential there for Soler to be a successful outfielder.

Travis Wood is a free agent and has been an integral part of the bullpen for a while. He’s an internal piece that I would say could get an opportunity, but only if the Cubs bring him back. The free agent market for pitchers isn’t great, as Hammel’s entrance into makes him one of the top options.

It’s likely to be Montgomery unless the Cubs surprise us by making a deal for a controlled arm via trade. It’s often said that deals during the winter meeting had the groundwork set the previous trade deadline. Theo Epstein was quite busy then, so there’s no telling what he may have cooked up in that time.

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Is there anyone in the bullpen that Maddon trusts?

It was quite apparent that Joe Maddon didn’t have a lot of faith in the backend of his bullpen, especially during the World Series. So little, in fact, he tempted fate by running Aroldis Chapman out for over 100 pitches in his last three games. In the end, the Cubs were World Series Champions. But it’s unlikely Chapman will be a Cub next year, so they’ll need to identify who it is the DO trust.

With Montgomery possibly moving to the rotation, Carl Edwards seem to be in Maddon’s good favor. The slim right-hander did very well for his first time pitching under such high-leverage situations. Pedro Strop will still be there, but what about the former closer, Hector Rondon? His arm issues late in the season seemed to turn Maddon away from him.

Justin Grimm finished the second half well, and Rob Zastryzny, while not on the playoff roster finished the regular season with some impressive numbers. But with Wood, Trevor Cahill and Joe Smith hitting free agency, the bullpen is a place that the Cubs will need to make some additions to unless they have internal options on their mind.

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The Cubs made headlines the last two offseasons, will this year make it three?

The answer here is no, at least in the way that they have the last two years. The Cubs will have several players coming up for arbitration and would rather keep the players they have happy while looking for supporting cast. Chapman, Hammel as well as Wood will be key losses–but the core of this team will remain in place.

Now, this doesn’t mean they won’t make headlines with a trade–possibly for a young arm under team control. That was the biggest reason for going after Montgomery, and Epstein and Co. won’t hesitate to make a move like that again. Pitching once again to be high on the list of priorities for the Cubs, but not in the same way it was last year.

The Cubs have many of their core players under control for several more years. But many of them will get substantial raises with arbitration. So the team will need to be mindful of that with each move they make in the coming years.

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 There won’t be many changes, and many of these young players will only get better.

Can Bryant actually get any better? I mean, NL Rookie of the Year followed by a possible MVP? But the truth is this team is still very young overall. They have the chance to play together for several more years before contracts and money become an issue.

This team has been put together as a potential yearly contender, not a one-and-done winner. The game of baseball is full of variables, but this team is poised to do something very special in Chicago.Not that they haven’t already.

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