CHICAGO -- After reaching the postseason three years in a row for the first time since 1906-08, the Cubs are preparing for a shot at another run for the playoffs. The attitude isn't "World Series or bust," but focusing on a 95-win season and see what happens.
Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein is optimistic.
"We have a lot of guys with the potential to take a big step forward this year," Epstein said of the 2018 season. "I would expect improvement or maybe even a breakthrough or two with certain guys performing at another level."
The Cubs were the first defending World Series champs to win their division the next season and reach 90 wins since the 2009 Phillies. It's tough to repeat. Here are five questions to be addressed heading into the 2018 season:
Who will be the fifth starter?
The Cubs did fill one spot in the rotation with the signing of right-hander Tyler Chatwood to a three-year, $38 million deal, but they still need another to join Jonathan Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana. A second part of this is how will the pitchers mesh with new pitching coach Jim Hickey, who knows manager Joe Maddon well from their days together on the Rays.
What will Jason Heyward do?
After batting a disappointing .230 in his first season with the Cubs in 2016, Heyward spent the offseason revamping his swing. He batted .259 this past season, and is back at the Cubs' complex in Mesa, Ariz., working with new hitting coach Chili Davis. Can Davis help Heyward find his groove? Time will tell.
Who will be the closer?
There will be a lot of new faces in the bullpen, including Brandon Morrow, who could take over as the closer. He'd be the Cubs' fourth in the last four years after Hector Rondon, Albertin Chapman and Wade Davis. Morrow, who signed a two-year, $21 million deal, was the Mariners' closer in 2008-09 but has been used as a setup pitcher since then. He was solid for the Dodgers in 2017, compiling a 2.06 ERA in 45 games.
Who will lead off?
The Cubs used 11 different batters in the leadoff spot last season. Who will bat first in 2018? Maddon hasn't ruled out the possibility of Kyle Schwarber returning to the top spot but wants to wait and see how the rest of the roster comes together. Epstein says having a designated leadoff man is a luxury, not a neccesity, and they did finish second in the National League in runs scored (822). Still, wouldn't it be better if Maddon could say, "You go, we go" to the same guy every game?
Can Schwarber rebound?
Schwarber drove from his Tampa, Fla., home to stop by the Cubs' suite at the Winter Meetings to show off his svelte figure and talk baseball with Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer. He looks great, but the Cubs are more interested in him bouncing back at the plate in 2018. Schwarber struggled at the start of '17, batting .171, and was demoted to Triple-A Iowa. He did finish with 30 homers and 59 RBIs.