The return of Kyle Hendricks is coming.
Thursday afternoon, Hendricks made his first rehab start with Triple-A Iowa. He threw 54 pitches over 1 2/3 innings. The line wasn’t exciting — six runs, six hits and a walk versus three strikeouts — but it’s not the line that mattered. Considering it’s his first game action since July 5, the Cubs are more focused on how he recovers from his outing.
According to Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy, the recovery process was often rough for him last season. He’d pitch, and then he’d have to grind through the next few days just to get ready for his next start. The capsular tear in his right shoulder just didn’t allow for proper recovery; in turn, that stopped Hendricks and his coaches from getting much in-between work done. Part of his offseason was spent working on a more efficient arm stroke that would help him avoid that kind of setback again.
The reports the Cubs got while Hendricks was in Arizona were promising. He’d been recovering how they hoped after bullpens and simulated-game outings. Of course, those sessions saw a limited number of pitches. As far as his rehab assignment goes, Hendricks throwing closer to a normal amount will be a better gauge on how well the recovery process goes after.
“It’s one thing to be at 55-60 pitches and feel good,” Hottovy said not long before Iowa’s game began Thursday. “It’s when you get to that 85-90 pitches, what does the next day look like? Because all of that dictates what we do in between outings.
“You want to have enough recovery that you can work on the things you need to work on. And for Kyle last year, it was like, get through the week so you can get to a start day. You don’t have time to work on anything. You have very limited pitches. So, it’s really encouraging to see where he’s at and how he’s trending there.”
Hendricks’ velocity was also an area of focus during this period. His bread-and-butter pitch is his changeup, but the Cubs know he’s also at his best when he’s consistently hitting high 80s with the fastball. So, getting a couple ticks back was an area of importance.
“There was a series of conversations in the spring just about [the fact that] his velo had been kind of creeping down over the last couple of years, and we wanted to push his velocity up as much as possible,” Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said. “When he was winning ERA titles and those things, he was touching 90. That had come down a little bit. … When he throws 88-90, his changeup is that much more effective. He put in a lot of time and worked on his velocity and focused on that, and I think the hard work is paying off.”
Cubs manager David Ross said earlier this week that Hendricks had hit 90 mph “a couple of times,” and reports were that he was mostly sitting at 88 mph. Considering his sinker averaged just 86.5 mph and his four-seam fastball just 86.7 mph last season, that’s a sign that his velocity work might yield positive results.
“I think we know he’s not a guy that’s going to be pitching at 91-92, but if he can be sitting 88-89 versus 86-87, like, a couple of ticks is going to be significant in terms of his margin for error,” Hottovy said. “But more importantly, for me, the velocity shows me that he’s strong. He’s strong and he’s healthy. The number is important from a success standpoint for him, but it’s also a health standpoint. Like, when I see him able to sit 88-89, I know he’s feeling pretty good.”
The results from Thursday were promising. Per the Des Moines Register’s Tommy Birch, Hendricks sat at 86 mph to begin his start but later reached 88 mph. And per Iowa Cubs broadcaster Alex Cohen, Hendricks topped out at 89.3 mph.
He’d hit 89.3 mph just 54 times in the 3,108 combined sinkers and four-seamers he’d thrown since the start of 2020. So, doing it in his first start in nearly 10 months is encouraging.
“The [velocity] looked OK,” Hendricks told reporters in Des Moines, Iowa, after his outing. “I think there’s even more in there when I get even more into game mode. But I felt strong out there.”
So, how does Hendricks affect the rotation?
The Cubs added to their starting pitching depth this winter, but it’s being tested right now. Jameson Taillon is still on the 15-day injured list (left groin strain). Ross on Thursday declined to name a starter for Taillon’s next turn through the rotation Saturday, but it probably won’t be Javier Assad (still a week until he can be recalled, unless as an injury replacement) or Adrian Sampson (minor league seven-day IL).
However, Taillon is eligible to be activated Tuesday, and the Cubs have remained hopeful it wouldn’t be more than a minimum stay. Meanwhile, Hendricks may not need many more rehab outings before he’s ready to return, too. That should solve some of the depth stress, but it also presents a bit of a roster problem. Obviously, having too many options for the rotation is a much better problem than the opposite. Still, it’s an issue the Cubs might have to tackle soon.
Marcus Stroman and Justin Steele are locked in at the top. Drew Smyly has been impressive. That seemingly leaves just two spots in the rotation for Hendricks, Taillon and Hayden Wesneski if the veterans return relatively close to the same time.
Wesneski — who’s so far struggled to replicate the eye-opening start to his big league career last September — would probably be the odd man out in that scenario. Hottovy has stated before that a healthy Hendricks will be in the rotation, and the Cubs didn’t give Taillon a $68 million deal for nothing. If this is how things shake out, the Cubs like will have to decide on either moving Wesneski to the bullpen or optioning him to Iowa and keeping him on a starter’s schedule.
But again, having to make difficult choices isn’t a bad thing. It means the Cubs built up enough rotational depth that they can afford to keep some of those arms in Triple-A. The decisions are tough, but knowing how good a healthy and effective Hendricks could be should help.
“We know what Kyle can do when he’s right,” Hottovy said. “We kept saying this the whole time: ‘We’re not going to rush it.’ We want to make sure we get Kyle to the best of himself. We could say that because of the depth that we have. So, it’s encouraging to see where he’s at. We’re excited to get to that point.
“Whenever you have a guy like him that’s coming, it definitely gives you a lot of confidence.”