Before what could potentially be Kyle Hendricks’ last start in a Cubs uniform at Wrigley Field, manager David Ross tried to put into words what Hendricks has meant to this team — and to him — in the 33-year-old’s 10 big league seasons.
“Kyle for me, just as steady as it gets,” Ross said before the Cubs’ 8-3 win over the Nationals on Wednesday. “Competitor, work ethic, demeanor, performance when he’s healthy. He’s got the grit, the fortitude to go out there when he’s not healthy and give you all he’s got. He’s a problem solver out there on the mound, figures things out. Great teammate. No problems on or off the field, kind of model-citizen-type guy.
“Organization-wise and a World Series brother for me. I mean, he’s a championship player. He’s a world champ, right? Takes the ball in the biggest moments. Pitched some of the biggest games in this organization’s history and started those games and never backed down from a challenge. Goes out there and does his thing and competes the best he can. You’ve got to feel really good about your chances when he takes the mound.
“Shoot, I love Kyle. … For me, he’s just the best. There’s no other word for it. He’s just a great dude, a great human, a great competitor, a great pitcher. Really important to this staff, myself and this organization.”
For nearly 11 months after his last start of 2022 (July 5 at Milwaukee), Hendricks was on the shelf dealing with a capsular tear in his right shoulder. A long rehab process involved making mechanical tweaks to develop a more athletic delivery and a program to boost his velocity.
When he finally was ready to return at the end of May, nobody knew what to expect. After that long a layoff with that kind of injury for a pitcher who’d struggled for most of the previous two years, how could you?
However, Hendricks quickly put to rest any doubts that he could still be an effective pitcher. He likely won’t reach the highs he experienced earlier in his career (third and ninth in National League Cy Young Award voting in 2016 and 2020, respectively, plus the 2016 MLB ERA title). But through his first 10 starts of the season heading into Wednesday, he had recorded a 3.57 ERA and a 1.086 WHIP and walked batters at just a 4.2 percent clip (which would be the second-lowest mark of his career).
And that performance has reminded his teammates of how Hendricks looks when he’s pitching like “The Professor.”
“For him to come back kind of midway through the first half and kind of step right in and make an immediate impact, I mean, he’s been throwing the ball really well,” Justin Steele said. “It just kind of speaks a lot to the kind of person, the kind of competitor he is. He attacked that rehab process. Really strong, was hitting all his checkmarks, doing everything he had to do to get back here and get back to this team and try and help us win. It just says a lot about the person.”
“He really stabilized the rotation when he came back and brought everything that he has done in his career: the stability, the ability to go deep into games,” Ian Happ said. “Had some unbelievable performances. You don’t have to worry about him. You can rely on him every fifth day, and that’s what he’s done so well.”
Still, that has left Hendricks in a unfamiliar situation. Because right now, he could potentially be a trade chip.
Only 11 games remain before the trade deadline on Aug. 1. Even with Wednesday’s win, the Cubs remain five games below .500 (45-50) and 7 1/2 games back in the NL Central and 7 games out of an NL Wild Card spot. They have a manageable schedule until then — their next 10 come against the Cardinals and White Sox, who are 43-53 and 40-57 after Wednesday, respectively — but they would still need some outside help to make up enough ground to get within striking distance of a playoff spot.
With that in mind, the Cubs are currently in a position where selling is the expected outcome unless things improve. And considering Hendricks’ contract situation (last guaranteed year, $16 million club option for 2024 with a $1.5 million buyout, per Spotrac) and performance, it’s no wonder he’s part of those trade rumors.
As the rotation currently lines up, Hendricks’ next two starts should come Tuesday against the White Sox at Guaranteed Rate Field and on July 30 against the Cardinals at Busch Stadium. That means, if he does continue to pitch every fifth game, Wednesday night’s outing was his last start at Wrigley Field before the trade deadline.
To some, that may have been a big deal. But Hendricks didn’t necessarily put too much stock into that aspect of the night.
“I hadn’t thought quite about that,” Hendricks said. “I think we all know where we’re at and we know the situation, but for me right now, I’m honestly just so happy to be back playing the game, being with my guys, taking the field with my teammates every day and trying to win. After the last year that I had with the injury and stuff, just really soaking in just playing the game right now.”
Hendricks delivered to help the Cubs to a much-needed win in the series finale against Washington. Over six innings, he allowed just one run (turning in his sixth quality start of the season) on five hits. He struck out five batters (his fourth straight start reaching that mark) and didn’t walk a batter. His fastballs averaged roughly 87 mph and he went to the changeup on 36 of his 97 pitches, and that mix helped him hold the Nationals to a 78.5 mph average exit velocity on 18 balls in play.
It was a pretty vintage Hendricks performance in what could be his last time pitching in front of a Wrigley Field crowd as a Cub. Nobody knows what will happen over the next two weeks. Whatever the odds are that the Cubs would trade the last player remaining from the 2016 World Series team (and their Game 7 starter, no less), that is a possibility.
Obviously, Hendricks would like to continue his Cubs career beyond Aug. 1. But like so many Cubs have said recently, Hendricks knows he has no control over what the front office does in the coming days. All he and his teammates can do is try to win ballgames.
“I think our focus is always in that clubhouse, and with the group we have,” Hendricks said. “Even last year, when it was somewhat obvious [the Cubs would be sellers], we can’t think about all that outside noise. It’s our job to come in here every day and put that uniform on and go win. All the storylines, everything that happens outside the field, you’ve got to let it be. Whatever happens is going to happen, but we just enjoy so much this group of guys, so we’re just trying to soak in every day that we do have.
“Whatever happens, happens. If we’re all still here, great. If some guys have to move on, we’ve seen it. This is baseball. Seen it a lot over the years.”