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Cubs face free-agent decisions on Dexter Fowler, Jason Hammel

The cold reality of the Cubs' offseason starts Thursday morning with five players immediately eligible for free agency and decisions looming on valuable leadoff batter Dexter Fowler and 15-game winner Jason Hammel.

Fowler, 30, who raised his stock with a .276 batting average to go with a 447 on-base percentage in 125 games, likely will eschew his $9 million mutual option in favor of a $5 million buyout to test the free agent market in hopes of receiving a more lucrative multi-year offer that's expected to exceed $14 million annually.

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Hammel, 34, who won a career-high 15 games and made 30 starts, fell short of 200 innings to trigger a mutual option of $12 million.  But that option is a bargain, considering the thin free agent market for starting pitchers.

Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, John Lackey and Kyle Hendricks are under contract or under club control for 2017, and left-hander Mike Montgomery could serve as a swing pitcher.

Hammel was scouted heavily by several teams during the final two months of the regular season.

Left-hander Travis Wood, who made a career-high 77 appearances and limited opponents to a .195 batting average, could get interest as a starter as well as a reliever.

Closer Aroldis Chapman is expected to pursue and land one of the largest free agent contracts for a closer, leaving former incumbent Hector Rondon as an option.

The Cubs' other free agents are outfielder Chris Coghlan and pitchers Trevor Cahill and Joe Smith, whose submarine-style delivery adds intrigue.

Catcher David Ross is a free agent but expected to retire.

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