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At this time a year ago, the Cubs didn’t know what they could expect out of Kyle Hendricks moving forward.
How could anyone? At that point, Hendricks had been officially shut down two months prior when an MRI showed he’d suffered a capsular tear in his right shoulder. He had already not started a game since July 5. An elongated rehab process meant he’d spend nearly 11 months out of game action.
Certainly, it would’ve been tough to know what to expect on the 33-year-old when he finally returned on May 25.
“I just love playing baseball, I love pitching so much, going out and taking the ball every fifth day for my guys. That’s what I love to do,” Hendricks said at the end of the Cubs’ season in Milwaukee. “It was a disappointing time when I was unsure. I didn’t know what was going to happen.”
Of course, Hendricks put together a season much more reminiscent of what fans had come to expect out of “The Professor” earlier in his career. He posted a 3.74 ERA and was worth 2.8 wins above replacement (FanGraphs), both his best marks in a 162-game season since 2019.
And the most important part about his rebound season was the fact that he remained healthy. Hendricks made 24 starts and never went back on the shelf. It wasn’t just his experience but his reliability that helped the Cubs go from 10 games under .500 in early June to a couple wins short of a playoff spot.
“I thought his season was exceptional given, truly, I didn’t have a great sense of what we were going to get out of him,” Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said at his end-of-season press conference. “He was confident going into spring training and throughout the winter that he was going to get back and be the old Kyle Hendricks, and he did. I was really impressed to watch (him perform). He worked on his velocity a lot, his arm strength, and I thought even touching some 90s in his last outing, he really had an exceptional year given what we were expecting.”
But without postseason baseball to prepare for at the beginning of the month, the focus shifted to where the Cubs and Hendricks go from here.
The team holds a $16 million (pre-bonus) club option on Hendricks for 2024. The assumption is that the Cubs will exercise that option after Hendricks’ performance this season. And if you ask all parties involved in that decision, it seems like a return next year is inevitable.
Said Hendricks: “I have full trust in whatever is supposed to happen will happen. Obviously, I love it so much in Chicago. My whole career playing in front of the best fans in the world, going out at Wrigley Field all the time. I wouldn’t want to trade that for anything, and they’re well aware of that. If it works for both sides, that’d be great, obviously, to be back.”
Said Hoyer: “Certainly, he’s been one of my favorite Cubs players to be around since we got here. Hard to imagine a better teammate. He redefines ‘low maintenance.’ He just does whatever the team needs, and it’s a joy to have him around. Obviously, I’m not going to negotiate anything with [the media] right now, but certainly, we want to keep him as a Cub for next year and beyond.”
Said Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts: “I think one of the great stories of the summer was his return to being as effective as a starting pitcher as, not quite 2016 Kyle Hendricks, but still very effective. It’ll be Jed’s decision on what to do with Kyle’s contract, but at this point, I would see him coming back.”
Hoyer has stated numerous times that the Cubs can never have enough pitching. That’s especially true for reliable starting pitching (on a reasonable contract) with high-level playoff experience. Hendricks proved this year that he can still provide that.
Assuming Hendricks is back in the rotation next year, the rest of the 2024 starting pitching group (as the roster is currently constructed) should include major leaguers Justin Steele, Marcus Stroman (can opt out), Jameson Taillon, Jordan Wicks, Javier Assad, Hayden Wesneski and Drew Smyly (can opt out). A healthy and effective Ben Brown most likely enter that mix eventually, and if Cade Horton continues to excel at the level he did in his first season of pro ball, he could also pitch his way into the big leagues next year.
That’s a solid foundation of depth in the starting pitching department, though adding a higher-end starter — and not just hoping for Steele to build on his Cy Young-caliber season as well as improvements from others in the mix — would likely bump the group up a tier.
Hendricks isn’t going to get that done on his own. He’s past his prime at this point in his career. It’s unlikely that he’ll ever reach the level he was at in the back half of the last decade, but giving his team a chance to win a majority of the times he took the ball wasn’t something we could’ve truly expected this season, either. Whereas five months ago his future in Chicago was very much uncertain, bringing him back in 2024 feels like an easy decision now.
If the Cubs go the route of just picking up the option on his contract, they’re confident he can continue what he was able to do in 2023. But Hoyer saying “next year and beyond” leaves open the possibility that the two sides could work out some sort of extension.
However that works out, keeping Hendricks around would be beneficial for a team looking to take that next step to legitimate contenders. Everyone knew he could still provide a positive presence in the clubhouse, but over the last few months, he’s had to re-establish that he could provide it on the mound, too.
Hendricks has answered the questions that surrounded him all last offseason. If the Cubs do bring him back, that should be a welcome reunion for both sides.
“I always try and stay positive,” Hendricks said. “I’d love to be here. Everybody knows that.”
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