CHICAGO -- When the Cubs finished off a no-hitter against the Dodgers in late June, the ballclub sat atop the National League Central standings and had its eyes on a late-season playoff push.
Things changed in a hurry for the Cubs, who saw an 11-game losing streak in July lead to a dismantling of the core at the Trade Deadline. Now, Chicago is coming off a 91-loss season and searching for ways to turn things around.
"We've changed the expectations of what Cubs baseball is supposed to be," Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said. "That's one of the proudest things for me with the Cubs, is that we have done that."
Here are five questions facing the Cubs this offseason:
1. How will Cubs rebuild their starting rotation?
In his season-ending news conference, Hoyer called acquiring pitching help the "No. 1 priority" for this offseason. Specifically, the Cubs need to shore up a starting rotation that ended the season with a 5.27 ERA that was one of the worst showings in team history.
"Really," Hoyer said, "we need to dramatically improve our pitching. I don't think there's any question about that. Our starting rotation simply wasn't good enough this year to compete."
Kyle Hendricks will be back as a veteran leader for the group, but Hoyer acknowledged that the pitcher is a "modern unicorn" with his weak-contact-based approach. Adding more power arms to the mix will be a goal for the Cubs.
Chicago has a trio of internal options in Adbert Alzolay, Justin Steele and Keegan Thompson, but the Cubs are also weighing using them as starters, multi-inning relief weapons or both in 2022. Alec Mills offers another in-house option, but the reality is the Cubs need to go out into the market and bring in impact reinforcements.
2. Can Brennen Davis make the Opening Day roster?
Davis impressed the Cubs with his conduct and production at the alternate training site in 2020. This year, the outfielder put himself on the national radar as he stormed up Chicago's organizational ladder.
In 99 games this season through High-A, Double-A and Triple-A, the 21-year-old Davis hit .260/.375/.494 with 19 homers, 25 doubles and 50 walks. His 100th game played was the All-Star Futures Game, in which he belted two homers and took home MVP honors.
Davis ended the season as the Cubs' No. 1 prospect, per MLB Pipeline, and should reach the Majors in 2022. The question is whether a torrid spring could make that happen faster than expected.
"Listen, he's had an incredible year," Hoyer said. "I think he's already accelerated his path. ... If you're going to ask me dates or times, I'm not going to go there. But he’s clearly really put himself on the radar."
3. Where will Nico Hoerner play next season?
The Cubs landed Nick Madrigal as part of the July 30 trade with the White Sox for closer Craig Kimbrel. Madrigal is recovering from surgery on his right hamstring, but is expected to be ready to go by Spring Training.
When Madrigal is back, the expectation is that he will be the Cubs' primary second baseman. That would seemingly push Hoerner -- a Gold Glove candidate at second in 2020 -- over to shortstop. Really, though, the situation is not that cut and dry.
"He's going to be a significant piece of our team next year and going forward," Hoyer said of Hoerner. "Exactly what position, I think, is sort of undecided."
Hoyer said "the beauty" of that is that the Cubs can keep an open mind about which position players (see: shortstops) they target this offseason. If Hoerner is not the full-time shortstop, manager David Ross could utilize him as an everyday player who moves between multiple infield and outfield spots.
4. What did Cubs learn from second-half offense?
For one, the Cubs learned that maybe there is life after The Core. While August was an emotional roller-coaster for the players behind the scenes, the new-look Cubs found something down the stretch in September. Players seized on their sudden opportunities.
"You've seen definite, real consistency out of the offense on the back-end of the season," Ross said. "It's all about identifying the holes we need to fill. That's a goal of the front office and mine. We want to continue to bring in guys who can help us in those areas."
Hoerner and Madrigal can help provide some contact-based bats throughout the '22 order. Down the stretch, Frank Schwindel, Patrick Wisdom and Rafael Ortega showed they can produce when used properly. Ian Happ's final two months also offers hope that he can continue to be a key part of the lineup. Now, it's about adding some impact pieces to the mix via trade or free agency.
5. Who will step up as closer in 2022?
The Cubs have enough holes elsewhere that it seems unlikely the team will go out and spend on a closer like they did with Kimbrel. Chicago may seek some veteran relievers on the open market, but the future closer is likely already in-house. In all likelihood, Ross will mix and match -- Rowan Wick, Codi Heuer and Manuel Rodríguez offering three options -- as he searches for the bullpen's next closer.