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For Cubs, there's work to be done in offseason

Club has big decisions to make on free agents, trading young talent
MLB.com @CarrieMuskat

CHICAGO -- Reaching the postseason three straight years is tough. For the Cubs to get there next year, there's work to be done. And this offseason may reveal whether they are willing to part with some of their young talent to do so.

Do they deal Kyle Schwarber to an American League team? Do they move one of their shortstops?

CHICAGO -- Reaching the postseason three straight years is tough. For the Cubs to get there next year, there's work to be done. And this offseason may reveal whether they are willing to part with some of their young talent to do so.

Do they deal Kyle Schwarber to an American League team? Do they move one of their shortstops?

"Sooner or later, you reach a point where you have to strongly consider sacrificing some of that depth to address needs elsewhere on the club," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. "There's no sort of deadline to do that. But I think we're entering the phase where we have to be really open-minded to that if it makes the overall outlook of the team and the organization better."

No repeat in 2017, but Cubs sitting pretty

What do the Cubs need to do to get back to the playoffs in 2018? Here are areas the Cubs will focus on:

Biggest Needs

1. Starting pitching: Both Jake Arrieta, 31, and John Lackey, 39, are headed to free agency. That leaves Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and holes to fill. Mike Montgomery is projected back in the bullpen when the 2018 season begins and available to make a spot start. There's not much immediate help in the Minor Leagues. The 2017 Cubs were built primarily through trades. As Epstein points out, trades are hard to make. Epstein said: "If we could make every trade that we have theoretically on our board, we definitely win the World Series next year. It doesn't work that way. You can go all offseason frustrated and not able to make one deal and plunge more into free agency than you want to."

Video: NLCS Gm4: Arrieta strikes out nine in Game 4 win

Possible FA fits: The best fit is Arrieta, and the Cubs would love to have him return. But at what cost? Said Epstein: "You don't want to make a habit of trying to solve your problems with high-priced pitching free agents. Over the long run, there's so much risk involved that it can hamstring your organization. We have a lot of players who have reasonable salaries who contribute a lot who might put us in position to consider it going forward. I wouldn't rule it out, and I wouldn't rule it in. I'd just say it's not our preferred method. We prefer to make a small deal and find a Jake Arrieta. We can't do that every year either."

2. Relief pitching: Wade Davis, 32, is a free agent, which means the Cubs are looking for their fourth closer in as many seasons. Epstein was not happy with the high number of walks issued by the bullpen -- they had the fifth-highest total in the NL with 264 -- which may have contributed to the decision to not retain pitching coach Chris Bosio. Brian Duensing also is a free agent, while Montgomery, Pedro Strop, Hector Rondon, Carl Edwards Jr. and Justin Grimm all return.

Possible FA fits: Manager Joe Maddon would prefer to have Davis back, and not just because of his pitching but also the leadership he provided in the bullpen. Or, perhaps the Cubs could sign Brandon Morrow, 33, who posted a 2.06 ERA over 43 2/3 innings and shut down the Cubs in the National League Championship Series.

Video: NLCS Gm4: Davis K's three, picks up the six-out save

3. Leadoff hitter: The Schwarber experiment didn't work -- he hit .190 batting first -- and the Cubs eventually rotated 11 different players in the No. 1 spot. They won't look specifically for a leadoff man -- Epstein called it a "luxury not a necessity" -- but they do have an opening in the outfield with Jon Jay leaving via free agency. Schwarber did rebound after his Minor League stint, batting .255 with 18 homers when he returned.

Possible FA fits: The Cubs' in-house options may be better than what's on the market. Albert Almora Jr. or Ian Happ might be able to handle the job.

Video: CHC@PIT: Happ plates two with a single to right

Gray areas

1. Backstop: The Cubs acquired veterans Alex Avila and Rene Rivera during the season to back up Willson Contreras, but rookie Victor Caratini made a good impression as well. Instead of signing a veteran backup, the Cubs could go with the 24-year-old Caratini as the No. 2 catcher. Which direction they go will depend on how they need to allocate their resources.

Video: Caratini named Cubs' Pipeline hitter of the year

2. Coaching staff: 2. Pitching coach Chris Bosio is gone. What impact will a new pitching coach have on a starting staff that led the Majors in ERA in 2016 but wasn't as strong this year? Hitting coach John Mallee and assistant Eric Hinske also won't return, and Chili Davis was hired as the new hitting coach. Can Davis help the Cubs improve their situational hitting?

X-factor(s)

1. Money to burn? The last two seasons have been good for the Cubs, and Epstein noted the business side has done a great job leveraging the success of the ballclub and creating some revenues. There is still a budget. And the Cubs can anticipate significant pay raises in a few years when salaries change for their young players. Said Epstein: "I don't think internal resources are limitations. It's more the landscape and strategic planning and the same limitations that 27, 28 clubs have."

Video: CHC@WSH Gm5: Baez, Russell combine for timely DP

2. Shortstop: When Javier Baez filled in for Addison Russell, the Cubs didn't miss a beat. Of course, the next question is, should Baez be the starting shortstop? Epstein said: "There's not one person in the organization who is pounding the table to make the switch or at least who will voice that opinion. There's also no one in the organization who isn't thrilled when Javy's at shortstop and intrigued by what he could do on an every day basis. Addy is a special player, too. ... Joe's strong belief is that we're better with Addy at short and Javy at second when they're both on the field, and that we're typically better when they're both on the field." Could the Cubs decide to move one of the infielders to get more pitching? Stay tuned.

Carrie Muskat has covered the Cubs since 1987, and for MLB.com since 2001. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat.

Chicago Cubs