CHICAGO -- As Tuesday's 4 p.m. ET non-waiver Trade Deadline approaches, there is disagreement among people both in and outside the game whether the Pirates need additions to have a legitimate shot at a division title.

But everyone agrees on this: The Bucs are not going anywhere without James McDonald grabbing the reins with the caliber of pitching he consistently displayed in the season's first half. Thus, McDonald's recent struggles have gotten undue attention.

McDonald will spend the next couple of days in pitching coach Ray Searage's laboratory, set to throw side sessions both Tuesday and Wednesday in preparation for his next start, Saturday in Cincinnati.

Meanwhile, folks are grabbing at various straws searching for a cause of his wobble.

• Splitting up him and A.J. Burnett in the rotation?

Of course not. The duo did go 11-1 while following each other for a month (and is 3-4 since), but McDonald preceded Burnett. So unless having Burnett charting his pitches could positively impact McDonald's performance, a connection is unlikely.

• Letting him push through 122 pitches in a complete-game win over Minnesota on June 21?

Nope. Although McDonald was a little off in his next start, the fact is two starts later he put up one of his finest efforts, seven innings of four-hit ball with no walks and 10 strikeouts against the Giants.

• The pressure of being given the ball for the first game coming out of the break from the All-Star Game, an event for which he was bypassed?

This one would have some legs -- starting with that loss in Milwaukee, McDonald is 1-3 with an 8.71 ERA in four second-half starts -- had manager Clint Hurdle not anticipated a potential risk.

"We had a conversation about that. It was private," Hurdle said. "He just wanted to help the team more. He was pretty darn good the first half; we might not have needed more.

"We've got a good record in the second half. James is the one individual who has not pitched well. So we're gonna grab at something, because we've got to have a reason for that."

Cruz throws, working his way back to Pirates

CHICAGO -- Juan Cruz, such an important contributor as the Pirates' bullpen was establishing its reputation as the National League's best, is at least two weeks from being able to return and help in the push for a postseason berth.

Cruz, on the disabled list retroactive to July 18 with inflammation in his pitching shoulder, on Sunday threw from a mound for the first time, about 20 fastballs to a standing catcher just to get himself reacquainted with the slope of the mound.

Cruz played long toss on Monday and is scheduled for a regular bullpen session Tuesday of 25-30 pitches, throwing his entire repertoire.

"Knock on wood, he responded well [to the Sunday workout]," pitching coach Ray Searage said. "The first time they throw a full side [session on the way back from injury], I like to keep it under 30 pitches."

Although Cruz evidently is making steady progress, the rehab assignment foreseen for him by Searage would take at least until mid-August to complete.

"I would like to see a Monday-and-Wednesday set, then back-to-back days," Searage said of the ideal rehab workload for a reliever.

Cruz, 33, has a 1-1 record and has even picked up three saves in 37 appearances, with an ERA of 2.61. Well enough, but he didn't allow a run until his 13th outing of the season and entered June with an ERA of 1.45 in 20 games.

Worth noting

• Josh Harrison remained on the bench Monday night, after going 2-for-2 as a late entry in Sunday's game in Houston gave him six hits in his last 13 at-bats.

• Neil Walker started Monday night's game one RBI shy of 200 for his career.

• This series in Chicago gives the Pirates one last chance -- for a spell -- to improve on their MLB-best record against sub-.500 teams: 35-14. Following these three against the Cubs, the Bucs will play 14 of their next 17 against teams with winning records.

Last word

"He'd be someone everyone would love having in this clubhouse. You see how he plays -- all out, with passion. And he produces pretty good, too."
-- Clint Barmes, on former Houston teammate Hunter Pence, who has been one of the outfield names being grinded by the Pirates' rumor mill on the approach to Tuesday afternoon's Trade Deadline.