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From July 6 through the end of the 2022 season, 11 different pitchers started at least one game for the Cubs.
The rotation carousel included veterans Marcus Stroman, Drew Smyly and Wade Miley, up-and-coming arms Justin Steele and Keegan Thompson and rookies Hayden Wesneski and Javier Assad. Missing from that group, however, was one starter the Cubs had hoped would round back into form after a down year in 2021 but who instead battled injury and ineffectiveness and didn’t pitch once in the second half of the season: Kyle Hendricks.
For as long as Hendricks was a model of consistency on the Cubs’ pitching staff (his combined 3.13 ERA and 20.9 fWAR from 2014-20 ranked 10th and 15th, respectively, among starters), the last two years have been far from what Cubs fans had grown to expect out of the pitcher who’d earned the nickname “The Professor” from his performances on the mound.
Sure, Hendricks has had his moments. There was a 16-start stretch in 2021 where he went 11-0 with a 2.79 ERA and a 1.16 WHIP. In 2022, he had three starts of at least seven shutout innings and was one out away on May 9 in San Diego from pitching the Cubs’ only complete game on the season. But those moments were dwarfed by the struggles he’s had since the beginning of ’21, and in the last two years combined, Hendricks posted a 4.78 ERA while also setting career-worst marks in a number of categories.
And to top it off, the pitcher who’d spent just 63 total days on the injured list in his first eight seasons in the big leagues missed the last three months of 2022 with a right shoulder injury (an MRI in August revealed a capsular tear in the shoulder).
All in all, it’s been a disappointing last two years for Hendricks. And considering he’s now entering his final season under contract (the team holds a $16 million club option on his contract for 2024), it’s unclear whether Hendricks — who will likely be the last remaining player on the roster from the 2016 World Series title team next season — will be kept around to help lead the Cubs past the current rebuild.
“I think I need to pitch to that level again,” Hendricks said when he discussed being shut down for the year back in late August. “I need to produce and perform to be a part of this winning culture and this winning that’s going to be coming. I want to be a part of that, so I’m focusing on myself to do as much as I can to put myself in that position.”
The Cubs certainly haven’t given up on him.
When those in charge discuss what the rotation will look like in 2023, Hendricks is one of the names that one could call a lock. Assuming that he arrives at spring training fully recovered from the shoulder injury, it’s almost a given that Hendricks will be in that group of pitchers who won’t have to compete for a starting job.
“I think as long as Kyle Hendricks is healthy, Kyle Hendricks is going to be in the rotation and competing and doing everything you need to do as a starter,” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy recently told CHGO. “He’s proven he can do that.”
At this point, though, that’s still a question mark.
In his season-ending press conference last week, president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said that Hendricks was “feeling good” but had not yet started throwing. Hendricks left to rehab in Arizona for the last few weeks of the year and had said that he was hoping to start throwing by season’s end, so that step in his recovery (as much as it might’ve just been wishful thinking) has apparently been delayed.
With the COVID-19 pandemic and the 99-day lockout interrupting his last two offseasons, this should a more normal winter for Hendricks to attack both his recovery and his offseason program. But that all still comes down to when his shoulder will allow him to fully get into it.
“The goal for him is, No. 1, get feeling good, get cleared to throw, get through the initial steps of all this,” Hottovy said. “All the signs are pointing toward him having a pretty normal offseason. … Maybe starting a little earlier, ramping up smoothly, being able to work on the things that we want to work on. If he gets through the first month of throwing, I’m pretty confident he’s going to be in a good place going into spring training.”
As of now, the Cubs are planning on Hendricks being in the rotation when 2023 rolls around — but plans can always change.
Even outside of the injury concerns, Hendricks’ struggles over the last two years mean the Cubs can’t go into next year with complete confidence that they can rely on him to rebound in what will be his age-33 season. His work ethic and pedigree do provide some optimism, but it’s definitely not a given. So, they need to have other options if he does continue to struggle, or if for some reason he still isn’t healthy.
On the current roster, Stroman and Steele are essentially locks. Thompson, Wesneski, Assad and Adrian Sampson are arms who at the very least provide rotation depth, while prospects like Caleb Kilian and Ben Brown should be on the radar throughout the season as well.
As far as free agency goes, pursuing a frontline starter makes all the sense in the world for the Cubs. And in terms of their own free agents, Hoyer discussed the possibility of bringing one or both of Smyly and Miley back “in the right setup.”
In a perfect world, Hendricks returns to his pre-2021 form and helps this team compete for the postseason next year. But baseball continues to show how imperfect of a world it can be, and with all the uncertainty surrounding him after his last two seasons, it remains to be seen whether the Cubs can truly count on Hendricks in 2023.
“I know talking to him, he has extensive goals this offseason about not only trying to get back to where he was, but also to continue to try to get better,” Hoyer said. “But yes, I think as we view it, I mean, he didn’t pitch at the end of the season. I have all the confidence in the world that he’ll do everything he can to be the pitcher he has been for us since 2014, but obviously, there is a level of uncertainty with anyone that misses the second half of the season.”
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