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Monday morning Cubs thoughts: Hendricks' return in '23 is most important

Ryan Herrera Avatar
August 22, 2022

It’s Monday morning, folks, so that means we’re back with a new set of Cubs thoughts.

The Cubs still haven’t lost a series since dropping all three in St. Louis to start the month, and they now welcome those same Cardinals to Wrigley Field for a five-game set before heading up to Milwaukee for three over the weekend.

It’s one of those weeks where the Cubs will go up agains the class of the National League Central. Yes, they’re pretty far out of the playoff picture, but these next eight games will be helpful in seeing how they stack up with their biggest rivals. And beyond that, these next few weeks will also be important in seeing if one of their most important rotation pieces will be able to help again this season. We’ve got just over six weeks left in the season, and I have some thoughts on how the rest of the year plus the offseason could play out.

So, let’s get right into it. Here are your newest Cubs thoughts for Monday morning.

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Based on everything we’ve heard over the last few weeks, it seems like Kyle Hendricks won’t pitch for the Cubs again this season.

The latest update comes via reporters who spoke to Hendricks postgame on Sunday.

https://twitter.com/MLBastian/status/1561477680121479169?s=20&t=g_fC-zxiWDpZ4WB9A80XJQ

Manager David Ross had actually put out earlier last week that Hendricks would be going to Arizona, but on Friday corrected himself to say Hendricks hadn’t started throwing and would be headed to Arizona soon. So, from this most recent update on Sunday, it looks like that’ll happen this weekend.

That’s a really tough development for Hendricks. Remember, back about a week after he went on the injured list, Ross had given the update that the Cubs were hoping to have Hendricks play catch in 2-3 weeks. Now, it’s been over a month and the throwing progression still hasn’t come. It’s been going slower than expected. That’s disappointing, considering we’re getting close two months since Hendricks last pitched before hitting the IL with a right shoulder strain.

Despite his struggles over the last two seasons, Hendricks has long been a model of health on the North Side. Since making his big-league debut in 2014, Hendricks has only been on the IL three times. This IL stint is his first since a 17-day stint in 2014.

Though the Cubs haven’t come out and said they’re shutting Hendricks down for the year, there’s every reason to believe that’s just a formality at this point. Consider it’ll take a few weeks for Hendricks to move through this progression, and even in the best-case scenario, he’ll likely need at least a couple rehab starts before he’s ready. There’s so little time left in the season as it is. Maybe he’s ready to go for a start or two at the end of the season, but that’s cutting it very close. I just find it hard to say with any confidence that we haven’t seen the last of Hendricks in 2023.

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My advice? Don’t do anything to rush this process.

Everyone from Ross to president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer to Hendricks himself have said his health going into the offseason is a priority. As it should be.

Maybe there’d be more incentive to get him back into games as quickly as possible in another season, but the Cubs aren’t going to be competing for a World Series this year. Even if they were making a playoff push, it would make sense to get back a veteran starter who started Game 7 of the 2016 World Series as soon as possible.

But that’s not where this team is at this point. Coming into today, the Cubs are 17 games back in the division and 13 1/2 games back of a Wild Card spot. They aren’t mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, but it would take a mighty push and collapses all over the league for them to have a real shot at the postseason. So, I don’t think there’s much a need for Hendricks’ recovery to go any quicker than it needs to be. There is probably some value in getting him back in a game or two just to get a full view of where he’s at heading into the offseason, but certainly not at the risk of injuring himself any more. Make sure he’s good to go at the right pace. If that comes before the season is over, great. If not, just give him the time he needs to recover fully.

I still think Hendricks can be a valuable piece in the rotation next year. He’s still a starter with tons of playoff experience, and the aspects of the game that have made him great in the past aren’t those that disappear the older a pitcher gets. Let him recover and go into 2023 fully healthy. If the Cubs are serious about competing next year, a healthy Hendricks is going to be necessary.

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That “if the Cubs are serious about competing next year” is certainly a big if.

Cubs brass has said multiple times over the past few weeks that there’ll be money to spend this offseason. If that’s the case, there’ll probably need to be some success on the field to justify it. And lately, that’s been happening. Since getting swept in St. Louis to start the month, the Cubs have won five straight series (plus a one-game pitstop in Baltimore). Go back to June 22, and the Cubs are 27-25, which is the 12th-best record in the majors and the sixth-best in the National League. For a team that was on pace to lose close to 100 games (even before they traded four of their best relievers at the deadline), these last two months have looked so much better for a team looking to prove they can be competitive next season.

I never truly thought the Cubs were as bad as their record was for most of the season season. I didn’t think they were that close to the bottom of the league. Would it have taken a lot of things to go right for the Cubs to even sniff a playoff spot? Sure, but it also took a lot of things going wrong (namely, a bunch of injuries to the rotation) for them to fall as far down the standings as they did. As it stands today, the Cubs are 52-68. They have 40 games remaining, with only 17 of those coming against teams who would be in the playoffs if the season ended today (plus three more this weekend against the Brewers, who are five games back in the division and 1 1/2 back in the Wild Card). My preseason prediction had them finishing 77-85, and though that might not happen, I think they can still finish somewhat close to that number.

So, why is this all important? I think it goes back to something Nico Hoerner told NBC Sports Chicago’s Gordon Wittenmyer last week:

“The baseball we have is incredibly meaningful for guys on an individual level as well as creating momentum into next year and proving that we are closer to winning than people realize and giving an accurate look for free agents to look at,” said Hoerner.

Although money talks, free agents don’t honestly want to join a team who might be rebuilding for years. If they can get paid and join a competitive team, it’s the best of both worlds. That’s an ideal scenario for free agents, and for a while there, it felt like the Cubs were only going to have one of those two variables. If they continued losing as much as they did, if they had reached 100 losses for only fourth time in franchise history, that wouldn’t have given free agents reason to believe they were joining anything other than a losing team for at least next season (if not longer). The Cubs will likely avoid triple-digit losses this season, and if they can play .500 ball the rest of the way and avoid even 90 losses, that’s a huge sign to potential targets that they might be a lot closer to winning than they’ve been given credit for.

Yes, winning now would hurt their chances at a high draft pick next year. But if that winning could lead to some big names making their way to the North Side, that would more than offset losing out on a top pick that wouldn’t impact the big-league club for a few years anyway.

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This month has shown the Cubs have a middle infield worth taking a long look at as its constructed today.

Since Nick Madrigal returned from the IL, he’s looked so much more like the hitter the Cubs thought they were getting when they acquired him in the Craig Kimbrel deal last year. In 14 games, he’s hitting .327 with a .411 on-base percentage. His wRC+ is 127 and he’s up to 0.3 fWAR on the month. Injuries plagued him all season and likely contributed to his unproductive play last year, but this month has shown everyone what Madrigal can do when he’s playing healthy. Meanwhile, Hoerner has continued his breakout season. He leads the team with 0.7 fWAR this month. He has a .750 OPS and a 114 wRC+. He’s tied with Madrigal for the lowest strikeout rate on the team in August at just 12.3 percent.

At the plate, both of them are having productive months that are helping the Cubs win more than they have all season. On the other side of the ball, Hoerner’s 14 Outs Above Average this season are tied for the most among all major league shortstop. Madrigal isn’t at that level defensively, but he does have one OAA, one Defensive Run Saved and has yet to make an error this year. Both of them are just 25 years old with plenty of club control, so if the Cubs want to, they have plenty of time to see what the duo can do as the starting middle infielders moving forward.

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On the other hand, having the ability to give the duo a long look doesn’t mean they should definitely go that route.

The Cubs have long been rumored to be after a shortstop in free agency, and despite Hoerner’s success at that spot this year, that shouldn’t stop them from pursuing one. Of the top shortstops who’ll likely be on the market, I think one of the ones the Cubs should seriously consider is Atlanta’s Dansby Swanson. Right now, his 5.2 fWAR is second among all MLB shortstops, and his 121 wRC+ is sixth. On the other side of the ball, his 14 OAA are tied with Hoerner’s atop the leaderboard.

He’s not far behind Trea Turner, Carlos Correa and Xander Bogaerts when it comes to his bat, and he provides a glove that stacks up with with any of them. Now, as great as Hoerner has been and as improved as Madrigal has looked, could you imagine what the Cubs could look like with someone like Swanson in the mix? If they brought him in and kept him at short, they could move Hoerner back to second and have the best middle infield defensively in the majors. Or, to make sure Madrigal still has an everyday spot on the field, one of Hoerner and Swanson could shift to third. Either way, bringing in Swanson (or any of those other three, really) would be a huge boost to speeding up this rebuild.

Now, would the players be up for adding another player to the infield mix? Based on this quote from Hoerner over the weekend, I’d say they would be:

https://twitter.com/MLBastian/status/1561144768255623169?s=20&t=g_fC-zxiWDpZ4WB9A80XJQ

Hoerner is clearly on board, and I don’t think anyone else would take issue with it, either. There’s no such thing as having too many good players. The Cubs could certainly pursue one of those free-agent shortstops, and then they’ll just have to figure out the best way to use them later. That’s a good problem to have, and as much as they want to see Hoerner and Madrigal up the middle the rest of the year, that shouldn’t stop them from taking a look at the infielders who’ll be on the market this offseason.

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In case you missed them, here are some Cubs articles from the past week:

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