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5 questions facing Cubs heading into 2019

MLB.com @CarrieMuskat

CHICAGO -- The Cubs won 95 wins and reached the postseason for the fourth consecutive year, a first in franchise history. But their season ended abuptly when they lost the National League Central tiebreaker game to the Brewers and the NL Wild Card Game to the Rockies on consecutive days.

Instead of preparing for the NL Division Series on Wednesday, Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein conducted exit interviews with players as they headed to the offseason wondering what happened.

CHICAGO -- The Cubs won 95 wins and reached the postseason for the fourth consecutive year, a first in franchise history. But their season ended abuptly when they lost the National League Central tiebreaker game to the Brewers and the NL Wild Card Game to the Rockies on consecutive days.

Instead of preparing for the NL Division Series on Wednesday, Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein conducted exit interviews with players as they headed to the offseason wondering what happened.

Here's a look at five questions heading into 2019.

1. What happened to the offense?

In the first half of the season, the Cubs led the NL in runs (476) and on-base percentage (.345). That changed in the second half, when they dropped to eighth in runs scored (285) and ninth in OBP (.316). In 39 games this year, the Cubs scored zero or one run, including when they scored only one in Monday's Game 163. They also scored one run in Tuesday's Wild Card Game.

In the second half, the Cubs scored two or more runs in 50 games and went 37-13 in those contests. In the first half, they hit 100 home runs; they hit 67 in the second half. Epstein said "not being able to get to two runs that many times in the second half is really unacceptable."

There were players like NL Most Valuable Player Award candidate Javier Baez, who took a big step forward regarding his offense. But Epstein said there were others who are trending in the opposite direction.

Video: NL WC: Baez on Cubs being eliminated, 2018 season

"It's probably time to stop evaluating this in terms of talent and start evaluating in terms of production and do everything we can do to produce," Epstein said.

2. Will Brandon Morrow be the closer next year?

Morrow led the Cubs with 22 saves, but he did not pitch after July 15 because of a bone bruise on his right forearm. He is signed through next season, with an option for 2020. When asked about Morrow, Epstein said they would recommit to the right-hander in a "very structured role" to keep him healthy. Manager Joe Maddon mixed and matched in save situations when Morrow was sidelined, but one substitute closer, Pedro Strop, will be a free agent.

"That's on me," Epstein said of the Morrow signing. "We took an educated gamble on him there and on the 'pen overall, thinking that even if he did get hurt, we had enough talent to cover for it."

3. Will Cole Hamels be back?

Hamels has a $20 million option for 2019, and after the Wild Card Game, he sounded like he wants to stay with the Cubs. Epstein said they were impressed at how quickly the left-hander fit in and that they want him back. The Cubs' returning starters include Jon Lester, Jose Quintana, Kyle Hendricks, Mike Montgomery, Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood. Darvish will be coming back from tendinitis in his right triceps and a debridement procedure in his right elbow. Chatwood needs to reboot after finishing as the Major League leader in walks.

"We're set up to have some depth in the starting staff next year," Epstein said. "We're not looking to get rid of starting pitchers. We're looking to have as much depth as possible so we can withstand multiple injuries."

Video: NL WC: Hamels tosses 2 scoreless innings in relief

4. Does Kris Bryant need shoulder surgery?

As of Wednesday, Epstein said Bryant did not need surgery on his left shoulder and was hoping that an offseason of rest and work would get the third baseman back to "100 percent and better than ever." After the Wild Card Game, Bryant said he felt fine. He missed all of August because of a shoulder strain and played a career-low 102 games, finishing with 13 home runs and 52 RBIs.

"I know Kris is disappointed in the way this year went," Epstein said. "He's taking a real positive approach to it. ... This is the first time he's dealt with injury and adversity. He's challenging himself to make something positive about it."

5. Will the Cubs find a bonafide leadoff man?

It's on Epstein's list of priorities, but it's not No. 1. Epstein has said he feels having a leadoff batter was a luxury, but it certainly helped in 2016, when Dexter Fowler handled that assignment. The Cubs used 10 different leadoff batters this season, and they combined to lead the NL with a .366 on-base percentage.

"As far as the leadoff guy thing goes, you'd love to have that guy you can point to, everyone knows going in who's in the one-hole, who sets the tone, who's getting on base," Epstein said. "If you don't have it, I think it's better to find a way to be productive in that spot, and we did."

Carrie Muskat has covered the Cubs since 1987, and for MLB.com since 2001. You can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat.

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