The 2023 season was already going to be an important one for Kyle Hendricks.
The veteran Cubs starter is only under contract through next year, meaning he could very well be looking at hitting free agency for the first time in his major league career. According to Spotrac, Hendricks had an option for 2024 that would’ve vested had he finished in the top three in 2020 NL Cy Young voting, but because he didn’t get there, the Cubs can either pick up the club option at $16 million or they can buy the contract out for $1.5 million.
We’ve already seen what the club has done with other stars who’d reached their final year under contract. Kris Bryant was an All-Star last season before being dealt at the deadline. Willson Contreras was an All-Star this year, nearly got traded at this year’s deadline and likely won’t be offered an extension this offseason and instead would only return if he accepts the expected qualifying offer.
Even at his best, the $16-million price tag might’ve been too much for the Cubs to keep Hendricks around past next year. But as Hendricks revealed before Monday’s 1-0 loss to the Cardinals, he’ll head into 2023 as low as he ever has in his career.
Hendricks won’t pitch again this season, as he’ll lose the entire second half of the year due to the right shoulder strain he suffered in early July. He said Monday that his most recent MRI showed a capsular tear in his throwing shoulder, and though he doesn’t need surgery to repair it, the timetable for recovery will keep him out of action for the remainder of the year.
“It’s going to be 12 weeks by the end of it, and so, when we knew that, kind of had to sit back and have some conversations,” Hendricks said. “It looked like we were running out of time to do a throwing schedule to come back and make some starts. We just all decided it’d be best. There’s really not the time to make up and not the time to get back.”
Hendricks is out, but at least he still has another year on his deal.
With Contreras not expected to be back in ’23 (at least on anything other than a one-year deal), and with president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer confirming two weeks ago that Jason Heyward won’t be back next season, the right-hander who started Game 7 of the 2016 World Series might be the last member of that title team still under contract as a player.
Who would’ve thought six years ago that all of Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javier Báez would be gone before the 2021 season ended? Who could’ve predicted every member of the core group of position players might be gone by the start of 2023, with only Hendricks around to help lead the next group of young stars into this new era?
“It’s still crazy to think it’s a possibility, for sure,” he said. “It just shows the game has changed a lot. So much of the turnover rate; the turnover rate of guys that come up and how quick they’re in and out of the game, or the turnover rate of just guys going to different teams. The game has changed a lot in that aspect, so, it just shows you to really take advantage of the time you have with the guys when you have them.”
Now, if he wants to make sure manager David Ross isn’t the last remaining tie to that World Series squad past next year, Hendricks is going to need a renaissance in 2023.
Remember, he isn’t far removed from the 2020 season that saw him finish with a 2.88 ERA and place in the top 20 among all qualified major league pitchers in fWAR (1.9, tied for 15th). He’s also a veteran starter who once led the NL in ERA (2.13 in ’16) and has elite command when he’s at his best.
Is the pitcher who’s earned three straight Opening Day starter still in there somewhere? For him to stick around past 2023, that guy has to show up next year — and he knows it.
“I think I need to pitch to that level again,” Hendricks said. “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. From there, that’s the business side of it.”
“The business side of it” is where things could turn even if he does have a stellar season.
Marcus Stroman has turned a corner since coming off the IL in July, and he’s under contract through 2024. Though he can opt out of that deal after next season, he talked over the weekend about wanting to finish his career on the North Side and could stick around at least through the end of that deal.
Then there are Justin Steele and Keegan Thompson, who both have impressed as starters this season and are sure to be in the rotation moving forward. Beyond them, prospects like Caleb Kilian and Hayden Wesneski are still waiting in the wings and could be up (for the third time this year in Kilian’s case) by the end of the season. And if the Cubs do pursue more starting pitching this offseason, is there room for Hendricks in the rotation if he doesn’t perform to a higher level next year?
“I’ve loved my time here so much. I’ve built so many good relationships with everybody from the top down,” Hendricks said. “When that time comes [to talk about his future], we’ll have those discussions, but No. 1 is I need to perform. I need to set myself up to even have those possibilities and those options next year.”
Yes, next season is an important one for Hendricks, and that’s why he’s taking the time now to prepare for it as much as he can.
He’ll be heading down to Arizona soon, and from there, he hopes to build up enough to be able to throw again before the season ends. Then, it’s about attacking his offseason program head-on and proving he’s fully healthy when spring training starts next year — when he’ll have already turned 33 years old.
Things might also shift when the season comes, too. If he bounces back to form but the Cubs struggle in the first half, and a team comes calling for a veteran arm with championship experience at the deadline, perhaps his time in Chicago ends earlier than he hopes. Or, if he rebounds and the Cubs take a jump in the standings, maybe they decide to keep him around as a valuable rotation piece for longer than just one more season.
Regardless, Hendricks knows he has no control over the business side of baseball. All he can control is how he goes about his recovery and how he works this offseason to rediscover the best version of himself.
After that, whatever happens, happens.
“To be able to play here for this amount of time in front of these fans with this organization, everybody around it, it’s been incredible,” Hendricks said. “I don’t take any of these days for granted. I would love to be here. I’ve always said that. It’s heaven, really. Heaven on Earth. So I wouldn’t change anything.
“But it’s a business. Things happen, and I’m OK with that.”
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