Cubs facing several key issues this off-season

If there's any upside for the Chicago Cubs in getting knocked out of the playoffs early, it's that team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer have plenty of time to plan their off-season.

There is plenty to do and a lot to decide.

Players may become free agents one day after the World Series ends. No doubt Epstein and Hoyer will be active in both the free-agent and trade markets.

Here are some of the key issues and the key names.

The offense:

There's no understating just how far the Cubs' offense fell in the second half of the season. Epstein's frustration, disappointment and even anger were quite apparent during his postseason news conference.

And just over a week later, hitting coach Chili Davis was fired after one season on the job.

At the all-star break, the Cubs led the National League in runs scored, batting average, on-base percentage and OPS. They were the only NL team with a triple-digit run differential (plus-114).

At season's end, the Cubs were still first in batting average. They were second in OBP, but they had fallen to fourth in runs scored and to fifth in OPS. They were 11th in home runs.

How to remedy it:

The two most attractive free-agents-to-be on the market will be Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper and Dodgers shortstop Manny Machado.

The Cubs have money to spend. They'll be conscious of going over the luxury-tax threshold, but that won't be a deal breaker if Epstein and Hoyer feel they can land one of these players.

What that might mean:

If the Cubs were to land a big-tag free agent, they'd have to move some players, either around the diamond or out the door. Any of Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ or Albert Almora Jr. could wind up being trade bait this off-season.

Schwarber would be an attractive DH option for an American League team even though his defense in left field was more than acceptable.

He had a batting line of .238/.356/.467 for a solid .823 OPS and solid OPS-plus of 115.

Shortstop Addison Russell will begin the season under suspension under the terms of Major League Baseball's domestic violence policy. The Cubs may seek to trade him, but his value may be at an all-time low.

The Heyward question:

For the past two springs, a big topic was how much "better" outfielder Jason Heyward was going to be after working with hitting coach John Mallee in 2017 and Davis in 2018.

Truth be told, Heyward was only marginally better in '17 than he was during his offensively poor 2016 and in '18 over '17.

This year, he went .270/.335/.395 for an OPS of .731 and a paltry OPS-plus of 92 (where 100 is league average). During his postseason news conference last year, Epstein talked of getting Heyward back to being a 6-win player, as in wins above replacement (WAR). Heyward was only a 2.0 this year after going 1.0 in both 2016 and 2017.

He has completed three seasons of his eight-year, $184 million contract. His full no-trade protection has expired - he may block deals to 12 teams over the next two years. If the Cubs could find a taker and even pick up some of the money, they'd certainly consider moving Heyward.

What to do with Hamels:

Left-hander Cole Hamels was a godsend to the Cubs' starting rotation when they obtained him in a July trade with Texas.

With Tyler Chatwood unable to find the strike zone and Yu Darvish gone for most of the season with injury, the Cubs were desperate for some stability and effectiveness.

Hamels gave them all of that, plus large doses of professionalism. With the Cubs, he went 4-3 with a 2.35 ERA and a WHIP of 1.10. He also tossed Cubs' only complete game of the season.

There is a $20 million club option on Hamels for 2019. Epstein stated his desire to explore bringing Hamels back. It would serve the Cubs well to pick up the option or pay the $6 million buyout and perhaps work out a two-year deal.

Chicago Cubs starter Cole Hamels has a $20 million option for 2019. Cubs president Theo Epstein has expressed his desire to try and bring Hamels back next year. Associated Press
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