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The Cubs' 2021 season was quite the ride. They were in first place in late June and by late July a purge of nearly every tradeable asset transpired. They were predictably a pretty bad team, overall, the rest of the way. Now the goal for club president Jed Hoyer is to build the next contender. How soon will that happen?

Some of that depends upon how aggressive the Cubs are this offseason. They currently only have about $67 million in payroll committed to 2022 and they were over $200 million in 2019. Given the "biblical losses" comments from chairman Tom Ricketts in facing empty ballparks for 2020 and how relatively empty Wrigley Field was in September of 2021, surely they don't want to mire in obscurity for long. Hoyer has said the team is willing to spend some money in free agency this offseason, too. 

Starting pitching

Hoyer hasn't been shy in pointing out the top priority is the rotation. Wade Miley has already been added in a slightly savvy waiver claim. He and Kyle Hendricks appear to be the only sure things, though it's possible Alec Mills and either Justin Steele or Keegan Thompson will get a shot. 

Would they spend big enough to land Robbie Ray or even Marcus Stroman? It's unclear, but Stroman seems like an excellent fit. It feels like an ideal offseason would be landing someone of Stroman's ilk along with a high-upside arm that would cost less like a Jon Gray or Carlos Rodón. 

It's unclear what kind of arms they'd be interested in via trade. Would the Reds flip Sonny Gray inside the division? Would the Cubs cough up the prospect currency needed to get Chris Bassitt from the A's when he's entering his age-33 season? Both seem unlikely. 

No, free agency seems like the path here and my hunch is they'll look at more volume from the Gray-Rodón group than going totally on the high end. There's still a path to success here if they hit on the right pitchers. Something like Gray, Miley, Hendricks, Wood and Mills/Steele/Thompson could end up being a serviceable rotation, so long as they are getting the most out of every arm. 

Big bats

It's possible the Cubs found some valuable players down the stretch in Rafael Ortega, Frank Schwindel and Patrick Wisdom while Alfonso Rivas and Michael Hermosillo could also prove to be useful. 

If the Cubs are looking to contend, however, there needs to be more surefire thunder. 

The first place everyone wants to look would be shortstop. Nico Hoerner doesn't have power, has been injury-prone to this point in his career and is likely an average-at-best defender at short. He should be a more a utility man. There are five stud free agent shortstops, too, with a Javier Báez reunion being at least a remote possibility. Corey Seager, 27, is the name we've heard most connected to the Cubs. Carlos Correa's price is likely going to be higher than the Cubs want to pay. Marcus Semien is going to be 32 next year and the Cubs surely would want someone younger given that contending in 2022 might not be the most realistic plan. Trevor Story is 29 and coming off a rough season. 

I'd say it's Seager or nothing among the shortstops, unless Báez's market bottoms out and he takes a one-year, show-me deal like Semien did with the Blue Jays

Speaking of possible reunions -- especially with the good chance the DH comes to the NL -- Kyle Schwarber, Jorge Soler and Nick Castellanos should all be on Hoyer's radar. Among non-returnees, Michael Conforto and Eddie Rosario also make sense in this group as considerations. As constructed, the lineup needs another bopper. 

Believe it or not, the Cubs' best offensive month in 2021 was the last one, hitting .265/.343/.446 against a league average slash of .250/.320/.423. If Ortega, Schwindel and Wisdom prove to be for real and Ian Happ can find any sort of consistency (he hit .323/.400/.665 with 14 homers in his last 44 games), adding something like Seager and Soler -- remember, Nick Madrigal will be added to the mix as well -- makes the offense look pretty strong. 

Make a decision on Willson Contreras

If the Cubs are doing something like adding Stroman, Seager, Soler and another starting pitcher, there is absolutely no reason to trade Contreras. In this case, he should be extended. He's one of the better catchers in baseball, especially now that he's learned how to frame. He was already one of the highest-upside bats and has as good an arm as anyone, but now the framing added means he's very valuable. He's coming off his best career WAR season. He's also one year away from free agency. 

If all the offseason shopping is going to come in looking for bargains on short deals just to patchwork a decent but non-contending team, just trade Contreras. 

Hoyer needs to find the sweet spot here. If the Cubs are planning on at least pretending to contend in 2022, Contreras needs to be around and they shouldn't send him into the season the same way they did Báez, Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant last year. An extension needs to get done. This would show the fan base the front office has the ability to do so with a championship core player and would further establish Contreras as a team leader for the next contending Cubs. 

If no extension is going to happen, again, trade Contreras. The free agent catcher class is brutal and enough teams planning to contend would love to have him aboard. It also takes the possibility of a Contreras in-season injury crushing his trade value off the table. He's a catcher and gets hit by pitches a good number of times when he's batting, so there's plenty of risk of that happening.