Do Cubs need to acquire a quality starter or can they survive with the arms already on board?
With 100 games left in the regular season, the Cubs' outlook for 2021 is taking shape.
Some key guys are back in top form, the depth has been impressive and the bullpen is among the best in baseball.
If the starting pitching holds up, the Cubs could be a pennant contender. If it doesn't, they'll probably finish the season at the bottom of an empty beer mug, looking up at the Brewers, who might be stronger at the top of their rotation than any team in the National League.
There's been plenty of talk about whether the Cubs will be buyers or sellers at the trade deadline, but we might as well make it specific.
Barring a future injury, they have no needs when it comes to bullpen or position players. The question is can they acquire a quality starter or survive with the arms already on board?
This is how strange this Cubs season has been: Matt Duffy, who helped ignite the offense back in April, may be asked to take his time returning from a back injury because replacement Patrick Wisdom won't stop hitting home runs. Meanwhile, Kris Bryant has become a full-time outfielder.
Getting back to the pitching rotation, the situation is a little strange, since the Cubs had the Cy Young runner-up in Yu Darvish and traded him to San Diego in a salary dump.
Then again, they got Zach Davies in return and are counting on him to be one of their better starters, along with Kyle Hendricks. The control pitchers staying consistent is Step 1.
Adbert Alzolay is off to a good start, but how much can the Cubs reasonably expect from him this season? He's gone above 100 innings pitched in a season just twice, and those were in 2016 and '17 in the low minors.
Already, the Cubs showed some caution by putting Alzolay on the injured list Tuesday with a blister. Skipping a few starts here and there will likely be the strategy to keep him strong in September.
Jake Arrieta has been pretty durable during his career, but he is 35. Before being sidelined by appendicitis, Trevor Williams posted a 6.52 ERA in May.
One way to approach it is to give those guys some extra time off or pair them with long relievers. Kohl Stewart has had one good start and one bad. Alec Mills returned from the injured list this week and could get a starting assignment soon. Keegan Thompson was a starter in the minor leagues and has done well in every role since being called up.
The Cubs also brought up Cory Abbott to make his major league debut in a relief role in San Francisco. Could he be a starter down the road? Abbott numbers in Iowa -- 1-3 record, 6.39 ERA, 1.66 WHIP don't necessarily suggest he belongs in the majors.
"I don't get overly concerned with what numbers look like in Triple A," Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. "Especially when I can go back and watch what pitches they're using, what they're locating, how the sequencing is. And a lot of times when guys come up, we have the ability to put them in situations that their stuff plays."
Two potential future starters lurk in the Cubs' system. One is top prospect Brailyn Marquez, a lefty who throws in the high 90s. The Cubs let him pitch an inning against the White Sox late last season and it didn't go well.
This year, he hasn't pitched in the minors yet. He was delayed by COVID issues in the spring, but they might also be working with him in the Cubs' celebrated pitch lab, with the hope he could be a late-season secret weapon.
"The last I heard on Brailyn, he's down working on some stuff in Arizona," Hottovy said. "I think he's progressing well. I don't have a lot of updates on that. A lot more important people are working hard with those guys in the minor leagues."
Next on the list is probably Ryan Jensen, the Cubs' first-round pick in 2019 out of Fresno State. His stuff looks good, but he's at Single A South Bend and probably a few years away from the majors.
Obviously, the other option is making a trade. It's probably too soon to take a guess at who might be available. But the Cubs do know the 2017 trade that sent Dylan Cease and Eloy Jimenez to the White Sox for starting pitcher Jose Quintana did not age well.
Quintana was decent, but did nothing to help the Cubs to a World Series return. Jiminez is hurt, but Cease has a 3.36 ERA in 12 starts for the Sox this year.
The Cubs' farm system is still in rebuild mode. So while the pitching rotation is a question mark, the Cubs should know better than to sacrifice their best prospects to get some help.