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To start the season, 4/5 of the Cubs’ ideal starting rotation was intact. Marcus Stroman was the one ready to get the ball on Opening Day. Justin Steele was the young star ready to build on a strong 2022 campaign cut short by injury. Jameson Taillon was the free-agent signing coming off two solid years in the Bronx. Drew Smyly was the veteran who agreed to return as a valuable southpaw.
Still, it would be almost another two months before the last piece, Kyle Hendricks, would join the rotation. But at the same time, nobody could guarantee he’d come back looking like the Hendricks of old.
The 33-year-old missed the entire second half of 2022 after going on the shelf with what was eventually revealed to be a capsular tear in his right shoulder. The Cubs put him on a long-term recovery program that involved tweaking his delivery and attempts to increase his velocity. But considering how long the entire process took — nearly 11 months passed between big league starts — and the fact that his 2021-22 seasons didn’t exactly inspire confidence that he could consistently perform like “The Professor” again.
“It was a real level of concern,” Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said recently. “I think whenever you hear ‘shoulder’ and things like that, you have significant concern. I feel like we approached his rehab with a real level of caution, and I think he did as well. We took our time. We sort of probably took a slower path than we could have to make sure he came back healthy.”
The Cubs wouldn’t know whether they picked the right path until they got Hendricks on the bump again. But since he made his return a month ago, he’s turned in an overall performance reminiscent of the Hendricks who was a model of consistency in the rotation for years.
After leading the Cubs to a sweep of the Pirates on Wednesday, Hendricks is 3-2 through six starts with a 2.60 ERA. He’s lasted at least five innings in each of his last five outings, and his most Professor-like performance came June 10 in San Francisco, when he only struck out three batters but still came within four outs of no-hitting the Giants.
Based on what he’s been able to do in his first handful of starts, it seems the Cubs did make the right choice in shutting Hendricks down last summer.
“At the time, when you make that decision, this is what you hope for,” Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. “You know there’s a long road to go and there’s a lot of things that can happen along that way, but I do think giving him the time to rest, getting him back to being what we know he can be mechanically and physically, then I think you’re starting to see the fruits of all that work that he’s put in.”
As is a common occurrence in a 162-game baseball season, Hendricks’ early absence wasn’t the only thing stopping this rotation from being whole. Taillon went down with a left groin strain from the end of April to early-May. And after only one full turn through the rotation after Hendricks’ season debut, Steele hit the injured list with a left forearm strain. So, the five of them haven’t all been healthy at the same time for long.
“This is what we hoped for kind of at the beginning of the year,” We knew Hendricks was going to be a little delayed. We were hoping that Steele was going to continue to do what he did in the second half of the year last year, kind of knew where Stro was, obviously adding Jamo and Smyly back. We kind of had the vision of these five guys really solidifying what we want to do as a pitching staff.”
With Steele returning last Saturday, though, the Cubs’ ideal starting group has come together at the right time.
Heading into a two-game series against the Cardinals in London this weekend, the Cubs are riding a 10-2 stretch after getting swept out of Anaheim by the Angels. Yes, a hot streak like that comes from every aspect of the game working well at the same time. But it the Cubs’ rotation has led the way in getting the club from 10 games under .500 and 7 1/2 games out of first place in the National League Central to two games under and 3 1/2 back going into Friday.
Since the start of the Giants series on June 9, the Cubs’ rotation owns the sixth-lowest ERA (3.38) in the major leagues — even including rougher starts from each of Taillon (5 1/3 innings, four earned runs on Sunday), Smyly (six innings, five earned runs on June 14) and Steele’s rotation fill-in, Hayden Wesneski (three innings, five earned run on June 11).
“We really feel like a cohesive unit together,” Hendricks told reporters in Pittsburgh on Wednesday. “Really got each other’s backs, watching bullpens, watching each other warm up before starts. It’s been every single guy, and just trying to roll off the next guy. Kind of a friendly competition in a way; do better than the guy before you.”
Can the group stay healthy and productive enough to keep leading the charge? That remains to be seen.
Hendricks needs to show he can pitch at this level for longer than just a month. Smyly needs to keep efficiently eating innings at the backend of the rotation. Taillon needs to figure out how to be more effective and consistent. Steele needs to stay healthy and continue building on his status as a rising star in the league. Stroman — who has very much worked his way firmly into the NL Cy Young conversation — needs to keep setting the tone as the head of the group.
The rotation has already performed like one of the best units in the majors all year (No. 5-ranked 3.77 ERA). With the group now getting some run in its ideal setup, they could certainly continue leading the charge toward the top of the division.
“We’re starting to find our groove,” Hottovy said.
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