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MESA, Ariz. — Less than an hour after Kyle Hendricks threw his first bullpen to live hitters on Monday, David Ross was asked if he would be the Opening Day starter.
“He’s in the mix,” the Cubs manager responded, eliciting some laughs from the media.
The next day, Ross was asked who will be the Opening Day starter.
“Well, Kyle Hendricks is in the mix,” Ross joked again.
Those questions were asked in jest, of course. The lockout barely ended a week ago, and Chicago still had players showing up to Mesa as the start of this week rolled around. With a couple new faces to the rotation in Marcus Stroman and Wade Miley, Ross may keep that competition open and not name an Opening Day starter for at least a few more days.
But as Chicago Cubs baseball returned to Sloan Park to face the White Sox on Thursday, there was Hendricks, the first Cubs pitcher to throw an in-game pitch in 2022.
Since Jon Lester’s last Opening Day start for Chicago in 2019, Hendricks has taken on the role as table-setter for the Cubs’ rotation. He got the ball on July 24, 2020 (a complete-game shutout of the Brewers) and on April 1, 2021 (when he allowed three runs in three innings against the Pirates).
Despite the inconsistent results from his first two Opening Day outings, if Hendricks being on the bump for the start of Cactus League play is any indication, it would certainly be surprising if the longest-tenured Cub doesn’t throw the first pitch agains the Brewers on April 7.
Hendricks’ didn’t necessarily blow away White Sox batters in the eventual 4-3 loss, as he only pitched two innings with two strikeouts and one run surrendered on three hits. But it’s spring training. The box score doesn’t really matter. What does matter is what Hendricks’ focused on in his two innings of work and how he felt his stuff played in his first game action of the year.
“Accomplished a lot of things I was going out and trying to do: Really establish my fastball, get down in the zone, just keep everything under control, have a good pace to everything,” Hendricks said. “So I got a lot of good swings from my end, a lot of positives really to build off.”
Hendricks’ changeup was also a point of emphasis for him during his first spring outing. It was his second-most used pitch in 2021 at 27.8 percent, per Baseball Savant, and not since 2015 has Hendricks thrown a changeup on less than 27 percent of his pitches. So, getting control of that part of his repertoire was just as important for the 32-year-old.
“A lot of good changeups,” Hendricks said about how he threw his No. 2 weapon. “There were a couple I could have gotten a little more down, I gave one base hit, but yeah, a couple of strikeouts on changeups. And again, right off the fastball. I was able to get the fastball down in the zone, so then the changeup was right off it today. I need a lot more of that going forward.”
“A lot more of that” would certainly do Hendricks well, considering at least a few of his changeups already looked like they were in mid-season form.
*Side note: When Hendricks was told that Pitching Ninja was already pulling clips of him, he said something along the lines of “I’m not even that good yet.”
Hendricks has three spring starts left to build up to the start of the season. His plan is to throw three innings in his next start, four in the one after that, and at least five if not more in his last outing in Arizona. With this shortened spring due to the lockout, the biggest positive coming out of Thursday is that Hendricks feels on pace to take that Opening Day start, should his manager decide to give him the ball.
“I felt really good out there,” he said. “Years past, there’s some where you just feel off. Your fastball doesn’t feel quite right, you’re not commanding it. So today at least, yeah, I was seeing the glove, I was out front, it was down. So, (I’m) a lot further along, I would say, than the beginning of spring training in years past.”
Robertson among influx of arms to join the Cubs
David Robertson has one of those comeback stories that warms your heart.
He made his major league debut in 2008 for the Yankees, then spent the next decade-plus pitching for New York (two separate stints), the White Sox and the Phillies. While with Philadelphia in 2019, however, he suffered a Grade 1 flexor strain in his pitching elbow an injury that ended his season after April 14 and required Tommy John surgery. In August 2020, Robertson suffered a setback in his recovery, forcing him to miss basically a second straight season.
After finally getting through his recovery and being ready to play during the beginning of the 2021 season, though, he didn’t commit to come back to the majors. Instead, he went on to represent the U.S. at the Summer Olympics (where Team USA won the silver medal) before making his way back stateside. And when he got back, he earned a spot in the Rays’ bullpen and pitched four scoreless innings against the Red Sox in the ALDS.
With an eye on increasing pitching depth, Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer made Robertson an offer he seemingly couldn’t refuse, and now Robertson is one of the many players Chicago hopes can hold down the fort in its ever-evolving bullpen.
“He just kept throwing a better offer at me every time, and saying, ‘Let’s just get this done,'” Robertson said, “and then I’m like, ‘All right Jed. All right.’ Finally it got to the point where I was like, ‘You know what, this is gonna work.'”
Hoyer has apparently been having plenty of those same conversations, considering the influx of bullpen arms being brought in. Since the end of the lockout, reports have surfaced that the Cubs had signed a number of other relief pieces (with a few already being confirmed):
Bullpens are normally fluid, but the number of signings in such a short period of time signal that the Cubs already identified that the relief corps needed to be addressed quickly.
“Our biggest focus, candidly — and we’ve said this over and over — is on pitching and pitching depth,” Hoyer said Monday.
Yeah, no kidding.
Stroman likes Brendan’s work
Last week, our very own Brendan Miller wrote another one of his famous seam shifted wake pieces, this time focusing on new Cubs pitcher Marcus Stroman.
Stroman even quote tweeted Brendan’s tweet linking to the story, and on Thursday, I finally got a chance to ask him why:
But that’s not all:
“I’ve always known I had good stuff,” Stroman told me. “I’ve always known my shit, to me, is elite, but I’ve never fit the mold of the prototypical pitcher now who throws it as hard as they can at the box. That’s not me. But the way my stuff moves and I see guys take swings, they don’t barrel stuff a lot. I knew there was some stat out there that was gonna favor me, and here it comes.”
Well done, Brendan. You might just have yourself a new fan.
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