In a bunched-up National League Central, a crossroads is coming.
Ahead sits a crucial six-week stretch that will push the season past its halfway point and bring it to the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline. Buyers and sellers will be defined. Pretenders and contenders will separate. And in a division where four teams still have a legitimate chance to earn a postseason berth, key decisions will surface.
Here is a look at a few of them, as MLB.com has identified one pressing question that each NL Central club will seek to answer before the end of next month:
The question: Could Jimmy Nelson be the boost Milwaukee's rotation needs?
After watching the Brewers swing a deal for Christian Yelich in January, most everyone expected the club to follow up by adding a front-line starter. That splash never came, and it leaves Milwaukee in a spot where it again must assess whether its starting depth is sufficient.
Thus far, it's been Jhoulys Chacin and Junior Guerra anchoring a rotation that has been around league average in most statistical categories. Getting Zach Davies off the disabled list should provide a boost, and the Brewers see potential in rookie Freddy Peralta. But they still lack an ace.
Nelson isn't exactly that, but if he can avoid another setback in his recovery from shoulder surgery, Milwaukee may be more content to stand pat with what it has. Nelson's rehab hit some snags this spring, and he hasn't yet resumed throwing off the mound. The Brewers can use the next few weeks to asses Nelson's progress and better project the potential impact he may have in the second half. If it isn't deemed to be enough, their search for rotation help may again heat up.
The question: Does St. Louis have enough on offense?
Sound familiar? It should, as this is the same question the Cardinals were trying to address months ago. Marcell Ozuna was supposed to play a big role in answering it, but even as he's come alive this month, the pieces around him haven't exactly fallen into place.
The club ranks in the league's bottom half in runs scored, and the offense leans too heavily on the long ball. Dramatic first-half struggles from William Fowler and Kolten Wong have complicated lineup construction. Injuries to Yadier Molina and Paul DeJong haven't helped, either.
But Molina is back, DeJong is on the mend and others (namely Matt Carpenter and Ozuna) have recently provided production more consistent with their career norms. With middle-of-the-order bats like Manny Machado and Mike Moustakas expected to be dangled as trade options in the coming weeks, St. Louis will have to assess whether it will gamble on this current unit coming around, or if the club is willing to part with prized prospects to acquire another big bat. The latter would be a particularly bold move for a team that is often hesitant to give up long-term assets for a short-term fix. The Cards would be more inclined to do so if they can first close the gap with the Brewers and Cubs.
The question: What will Yu do?
Yu Darvish was supposed to be the missing piece the defending division champs needed, but he has spent as much time on the DL as he has the active roster this year. First, it was the flu. Now, it's a right triceps injury.
Yes, Mike Montgomery has done an exceptional job filling in during Darvish's absence. But there's a reason the Cubs committed $126 million to Darvish this offseason. Getting him back -- and the Cubs are optimistic they will before the All-Star break -- would give Chicago even more flexibility in how it can deploy its arms. The Cubs could give Tyler Chatwood time to pause and address his command troubles. They could consider temporarily transitioning to a six-man rotation. Or (and this seems likeliest), they could make one of baseball's best bullpens even more formidable by adding Montgomery to it.
For a club with few glaring needs, sliding Darvish back into the rotation may be the biggest move the Cubs make in July. Of course, they'll only get a boost if he's better than his first impression and can stay healthy. Darvish has a 4.95 ERA, three quality starts and a 1.425 WHIP in eight games. The Cubs need better.
The question: Will the Bucs be buyers or sellers?
In dealing away Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole last offseason, the Pirates cast themselves into what most folks thought would be another rebuild. Then they raced out to an 11-4 start to the season, forcing many to reevaluate whether they had undersold Pittsburgh's potential. That answer is still unclear.
The Bucs have been a streaky team so far, and not for the better as of late. A recent 9-19 stretch -- one complicated by a leaky bullpen -- has dropped the Pirates into fourth place in the division. If they're still treading around or below the .500 mark at this time next month, Pittsburgh will likely listen to trade offers on veteran players nearing free agency. That may put Josh Harrison, Jordy Mercer, David Freese and/or Francisco Cervelli on the move. But if the next six weeks go more like the first few did, general manager Neal Huntington may be inclined to hold onto his assets and even add a complementary piece or two.
So what has to go right for the Pirates to push themselves into buying consideration? Their inexperienced rotation will need to hold up. The Bucs' young relievers will need to step up. Their lineup will need to show that its early production was no fluke. And Pittsburgh would probably need to leapfrog at least one team ahead of it in the division.
The question: Will Cincinnati's carousel of outfielders finally prove fruitful?
There was sound logic behind the Reds' decision to enter the season rotating four outfielders through three outfield spots. They believed that such a system would help keep everyone fresh and maximize the varying skill sets offered by Scott Schebler, Adam Duvall, Billy Hamilton and Jesse Winker. Instead, the club has been handcuffed by inconsistent production from all four. Currently, Cincinnati ranks last in the NL in outfielder batting average and slugging percentage.
The biggest conundrum may be what to do with Hamilton. His elite defensive ability will always be an asset, but he's not been on base enough to take advantage of his speed. Hamilton is just a little over a year away from free agency, and if he's not deemed part of the Reds' long-term plan, the club may reach a point where they quit prioritizing his playing time.
The other possibility is that the club could try to deal the center fielder. Duvall could also be on the trade block. What sort of value either might have on the market will be shaped whether either can find his way out of a first-half funk.