By Chris Emma–

(CBS) On the brink of elimination in the World Series last season, the Cubs never flinched. They sat back confident in their chances of a championship, even down 3-1.

That’s because the Cubs could count on their starting pitching for a chance to win every time out. In that case, it was Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks lined up to close out the World Series against the Indians. Each came through in the clutch. The rest is history.

November feels like a long time ago, with the Cubs now 25-27 on the season. They recently dressed up in salute of “Anchorman,” traveled to the West Coast and got swept away by the Dodgers and lowly Padres. Whammy, indeed.

While struggling mightily now, the Cubs’ bats are OK, likely to find their form in time. These are young players, many of whom haven’t struggled during their budding major league careers. Past production reminds of their capabilities. The defense should be fine, too, with too many talented players to be just average in the field.

But it’s that once-reliable starting pitching that’s of great concern as we near the one-third mark of this season. The Cubs’ starters have collective 4.64 ERA, which ranked 22nd in baseball entering Thursday’s needed off day. While their FIP stands at 4.19 — partially a reflection of defensive inconsistencies — it’s clear there are major issues with this rotation.

Baseball’s ERA leader in 2016, Hendricks is the Cubs’ current leader at 3.75. Lester is second at 3.86. The rest is quite ugly, with Arrieta at 4.60 and John Lackey at 5.18. Don’t ask about Brett Anderson.

Last season, the Cubs led all of baseball with a 2.96 ERA from their starters. In second place were the Nationals, 64 points removed at 3.60. One through five, the Cubs ranged from dominant to effective. They could always count on a chance to win. Now, the Cubs have surrendered an average of 0.90 runs in the first inning. They’re usually starting the game in a hole.

President of baseball operations Theo Epstein will be looking for starting pitching before the trade deadline and should be open-minded to all possibilities. He likes to buy low on reclamation projects, but the Cubs need to make a splash because there are cruel realities ahead.

Arrieta is entering free agency this offseason, with agent Scott Boras ready to get every dollar for his client. Given his recent performances, it’s hard to imagine Arrieta as that $200-million man, but he could garner $100 million. The Cubs likely will stop bidding early. Then there’s Lackey, who turns 39 in October as he prepares for free agency. He won’t be back.

The Cubs are likely returning just Lester, Hendricks and long man Mike Montgomery to their rotation in 2018. Moves at the deadline must also help the team beyond this season.

White Sox left-hander Jose Quintana and Athletic right-hander Sonny Gray should be among top targets for the Cubs at the trade deadline — two proven pitchers in their primes locked into team-friendly contracts. Both are club-controlled through 2020. Though Quintana, 28, has been shaky this season and Gray, 27, is coming off a miserable 2016 of injuries and struggles, both have proved they can be top-of-the-rotation pitchers.

Even better, both Quintana and Gray can dominate with a strong defense behind them. The Cubs should be set in the field for years to come, whether that’s in the infield or outfield. They can provide the proper stage for either one. Epstein’s affinity for Kyle Schwarber and Javier Baez is known, but he should think of moving prospects Eloy Jimenez of Jeimer Candelario, both blocked at the big league level.

Rays right-hander Chris Archer, a former Cubs farmhand, should also be considered by Epstein. He’s 28 and under team control through 2021 at a terrific value. While Archer has taken a step back from his All-Star form of 2015, he’s still a quality pitcher.

The Cubs will have plenty of short-term options available in the next two months. Alex Cobb of the Rays and Jeremy Hellickson of the Phillies are among effective back-end options pitching through contract seasons who figure to be on the trade market. The White Sox have three possibilities in Derek Holland, Miguel Gonzalez and Mike Pelfrey, each of whom is working on the final year of a contract.

Surely, Epstein has plenty of other names stacked in his mind. Meanwhile, the Cubs are working to see if Brett Anderson, Eddie Butler or Alec Mills can stick in the rotation. Early returns have been mixed with those project players.

Despite all that happened last season, the Cubs need to address their rotation issues with urgency. Their starters aren’t giving them a chance to win this season, and solutions for the long term are nowhere to be found.

Rotation inconsistencies could jeopardize a wide-open championship window led by this terrific young core of hitters.

Epstein knows he must be proactive with the pitching — for 2017 and beyond.

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670 and like his Facebook page.

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