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.
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.