MLB.com Columnist

Phil Rogers

Cubs' 2017 identity is far from clear

After disappointing weekend, defending champs can turn tides on road

Cubs' 2017 identity is far from clear

So just how was the weekend for the Cubs? Well, it was as crazy as the conditions at Wrigley Field were unpleasant.

When was the last time one game featured a catcher pitching in the ninth inning and the next one ended with a pitcher pinch-hitting in the bottom of the 18th?

Save the phone call to the Elias Sports Bureau. I'm just going to come out and say that was a first for the Cubs -- and from their perspective, hopefully a last, too.

While the Cubs can take pride in rallying for three runs in the ninth inning against Aroldis Chapman to turn the game into a six-hour, four-minute marathon on Sunday night, it had to be humbling to hop on a plane after being swept by the Yankees.

Cubs rally in the 9th inning

Add in dropping two of three to the Red Sox the previous weekend in Boston, and you'd guess Joe Maddon isn't missing the American League East.

Yes, the honeymoon's over. The Cubs have dropped seven of their past 11 games, falling behind the Reds and the Cardinals in a surprisingly bunched up National League Central. This stretch raises questions about whether they are the same dominant team that won 103 regular-season games and ended a 108-year drought last season.

We're about to find out.

They're going to need all of Anthony Rizzo's resolve, Maddon's care and handling and Theo Epstein's roster machinations to get straightened out on the trip that starts Monday night at Coors Field and ends Sunday at Busch Stadium.

There's blood in the water -- a 4.64 ERA for the Cubs' starting pitchers, a hole in the fifth starter's spot, fielding that's no longer elite and both Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber in offensive funks (although Schwarber did have two doubles and a potential blast killed by the wind Sunday) -- and you know nobody's going to feel sorry for any team, especially not one that looks like baseball's next dynasty.

While you can downplay concerns about the 16-15 Cubs, this next trip and the run toward a visit to Dodger Stadium over Memorial Day weekend will go a long way in letting us know whether they'll be on cruise control in August and September or making non-waiver Trade Deadline deals to hold off the Cardinals and Pirates -- or maybe even the Reds and Brewers.

Crazy things happen in Major League Baseball. It's not preordained that the Cubs will repeat as NL Central champions, although it sure looked that way this spring in Arizona.

It's never smart to draw conclusions based on one or two early-season series, but they can be telling.

Maddon on tough 18-inning loss

The Yankees' visit to Wrigley Field was something of a coming-out party for the Yanks, who stole Friday's game on Brett Gardner's dramatic ninth-inning homer off Hector Rondon and overcame Chapman's blown save to win Sunday night, thanks largely to a bunt single by Aaron Hicks and Willson Contreras' throwing error on the play.

In between the two games that were contested down to the last drop, the Yankees pounded No. 5 starter Brett Anderson (who has since been placed on the disabled list) in an 11-6 win on Saturday night. The Cubs' pitching was already so thin before Sunday's 18-inning game that Maddon sent catcher Miguel Montero to the mound down five runs in the ninth Saturday.

Maddon still seems to be getting a feel for his 2017 team. He plugged Schwarber into the leadoff spot after Dexter Fowler's offseason departure, but he hasn't had as clear-cut of an answer in the outfield, shifting the combinations out there frequently. Maddon has used Jason Heyward more in center field than was expected after Epstein signed Jon Jay -- perhaps because Jay is still adjusting to the conditions at Wrigley Field.

The Cubs have missed the rubber arm of Travis Wood in the bullpen, not to mention Jason Hammel's consistency as the No. 5 starter. They'd be wise to promote Eddie Butler (1-0, 1.17 ERA in five starts for Triple-A Iowa) rather than shifting Mike Montgomery into the rotation when Anderson's turn comes around this weekend in St. Louis, as Montgomery is needed in the bullpen.

However, the real decision for Maddon and Epstein is whether to go with a fifth starter at all. The schedule offers days off on Thursday and next Monday, and that gives the Cubs the chance to use their veteran starters exclusively until May 20, when a fifth starter would be required.

It's early to acknowledge a sense of urgency -- and Butler, once a top prospect for the Rockies, is an intriguing option in his own right -- but why not turn to Jake Arrieta, John Lackey, Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester to restore order?

While it didn't include as much craziness, the Cubs went through a similar stretch to this last May, going 4-8 in a run against the Padres, Pirates, Brewers, Giants and Cardinals. But that came after they had started the season 25-6, building an 8 1/2-game lead in the NL Central.

Now that the 2016 World Series rings have been distributed, it is time to stick to the present tense. Kris Bryant speaks for his teammates when he says he'd love it if people stopped comparing 2017 to '16, because the run to the World Series was "almost perfect in everything.''

Who are this year's Cubs? Check back in a few weeks, after we've seen how they handled this week's challenges and the trip to the Dodger Stadium, where they'll face their biggest threat to a World Series return.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.