CHICAGO -- With every victory, every strikeout and every 1-2-3 inning, Rick Sutcliffe pushes the Cubs front office toward a difficult decision.
Do they sign the veteran at the end of the season and gamble that his shoulder will hold out? Or do they risk angering their
followers by bidding the immensely popular pitcher goodbye -- and hope he doesn't mount a comeback with another club?
Those questions would not have been raised if Sutcliffe, 35, had lived down to most people's expectations and failed in his return to the rotation this month. On Oct. 6, the Cubs would have thanked Sutcliffe for the memories -- specifically, two division titles and a Cy Young Award -- thrown him a news conference and let him pack his career in peace.
But Sutcliffe, apparently free of shoulder soreness, has refused to go quietly. And if he keeps pitching the way he has recently, he's going to cause quite a stir by the end of the season.
He already has, actually. His future is such a sensitive issue that general manager Jim Frey would rather not address it until October.
"I don't know what to say about him," Frey said. "I think the only thing that anyone can say is that we have six weeks to see what consistency he has. That's all we can do."
All Sutcliffe can do is keep throwing zeroes at the opposition. In his four starts since returning from the disabled list, Sutcliffe has allowed just four earned runs in 23 innings, a slim 1.57 ERA. What's more, he has struck out 19 men, and in the four starts has a better ratio of strikeouts-to-innings than he has had since sweeping to the Cy Young in 1984.
But a handful of starts do not ensure a comeback. This is, after all, a pitcher whose two victories in the past seven days doubled his total for the previous 22 months. This is a pitcher cursed with a fickle shoulder. This is a pitcher who is averaging $1 million in salary for every victory he has posted in the last two years (four).
"If [the Cubs] have reservations, I certainly understand them," Sutcliffe said. "Ten days ago, from the things that I read, I was not in their plans."
The Cubs' plans for 1992 are a puzzle, but a puzzle with great potential. It won't be solved in this season's final month and a half, but important clues will be provided.
That's why the next six weeks will be so important to Sutcliffe -- and so important to the Cubs as they try to piece together a rotation.
This year the rotation was in chaos from the start, what with the loss of Danny Jackson, Mike Harkey and Sutcliffe to injuries and Shawn Boskie to ineffectiveness. But pretend for a moment that everyone will be healthy next March. That gives the Cubs staff ace Greg Maddux, Jackson, Harkey, Sutcliffe, Mike Bielecki and Frank Castillo.
But others figure in the equation for 1992. Boskie almost certainly will be given a shot at rejoining the rotation. Bob Scanlan might have a chance as well. And Lance Dickson is expected to be ready.
This possible surplus of starters is a luxury the Cubs haven't enjoyed this disappointing summer. Don't be surprised if the Cubs unload someone and add someone else during the off-season.
"I know one thing," Sutcliffe said. "They'll be looking for pitching this winter. If I'm healthy, I can help them."
The Cubs apparently aren't sure, nor can they be until Sutcliffe shows his arm can survive the strain of starting every fifth day. Six weeks ought to tell.
His teammates seem to have made up their minds about what the Cubs should do. "I think his value is immeasurable," catcher Joe Girardi said. "Here's a man who's been through the ups and downs -- the dream season and the nightmare season. We found that we really missed him last year."
For now, any talk about Sutcliffe's future is just talk. He'll keep taking the ball every fifth day and trying to prove he's right about helping the club.
And by the end of the year, the Cubs hope to have enough information to make a wise choice. But even if they decide to keep him, they'll still have to figure out how much to offer him. That's another toughie.
Sutcliffe is making $2.175 million this year, the fifth-highest salary on the club. He probably will not command more next year; his agent, Barry Axelrod, indicated that Sutcliffe could be interested in an incentive-laden deal sometimes offered to players with a history of injuries.
Sutcliffe shakes his head when asked if he'd consider a foray into the free-agent market for curiosity's sake. But the possibility exists, especially if he judges the Cubs' offer too low.
"If he goes 8-0 with a 2.00 ERA the rest of the way, he's going to have some suitors," Axelrod said.