23 for ’23: What can we expect from Kyle Hendricks this season when he returns to Cubs?
Between position battles, roster additions and new rules, there are plenty of questions surrounding the 2023 Cubs. We attempt to provide answers for 23 of the most intriguing questions heading into the season.
MESA, Ariz. — The Cubs entered the offseason with a clear desire to add to the starting rotation, but the big question was determining how many pitchers to acquire.
Two rotation spots were locked in (Marcus Stroman, Justin Steele) and there were several in-house options to choose from (Adrian Sampson, Keegan Thompson, Hayden Wesneski, Adbert Alzolay, Javier Assad).
Then there was the biggest question mark of all — Kyle Hendricks.
The veteran pitcher — and the last remaining player on the roster from the 2016 championship team — missed the entire second half of 2022 with a capsular tear in his right shoulder. The Cubs didn’t want him to push to return to the mound in-season, instead opting to give him a full winter to heal up and return to 100% health.
But this was the biggest injury of Hendricks’ career and at 33, he and the Cubs wanted to take things slow.
So Jed Hoyer’s front office signed Jameson Taillon to a 4-year deal during the Winter Meetings and then further added to the rotation by bringing back veteran Drew Smyly. That provided some cover for the team and took the pressure off Hendricks to return by Opening Day.
“The most important thing is getting him back to pitching like Kyle Hendricks,” Jed Hoyer said at the outset of Cubs camp. “We’re willing to wait a little while for that.”
When Hendricks returns is still up in the air, but sometime in May is a realistic target. After throwing a couple of light bullpens described as “touch-and-feels” earlier in camp, Hendricks ramped up the intensity with 100% bullpens last week.
He plans to throw 10 total bullpens (on each Monday and Friday) and then face hitters in a live batting practice setting in early April.
Even before the injury, Hendricks has endured an up-and-down run the last couple years.
For the first 7 years in the big leagues, Hendricks tallied a 3.12 ERA and 1.11 WHIP and never saw his ERA climb over 4.00 in a season. He won the ERA title in 2016 and twice finished in the Top 10 in National League Cy Young voting.
But 2021-22 was a different story. In 48 starts over the last two years, Hendricks’ ERA soared to 4.78 and his WHIP rose to 1.33.
Those numbers come with a bit of an asterisk, however. The Cubs opted to skip Hendricks’ turn in the rotation in early June last year and then he was shut down a month later with the shoulder injury.
In 2021, he had a rough month of April (7.54 ERA) but followed that up with a three-month stretch where he went 12-1 with a 2.89 ERA and there was legitimate buzz about him potentially representing the Cubs in the All-Star Game or possibly even approaching 20 wins for the season.
Things changed when the Cubs traded away over 1/3 of the team at the deadline, including several of Hendricks’ longtime teammates. It was the first time he had to pitch in an environment where he was not competing for the playoffs and he admitted to struggling with that adjustment. His numbers suffered as a result and he finished the year with a 7.39 ERA in August and September.
While the Cubs wanted to give Hendricks time to return to full health this winter, the long runway also afforded an opportunity to rework his mechanics with the hope of finding more consistency when he returns to the rotation.
Hendricks has worked to shorten his arm path when delivering the ball in an effort to get more life on his pitches and also to avoid putting stress on his shoulder.
So far, the results have been promising.
“It’s becoming like second nature more at this point,” Hendricks said. “Just patterning it over and over. It’s helped just being able to throw every day. Getting a rep every single day, patterning it, instead of just throwing 3 days a week at the start. The volume has helped that a lot.
“It feels like it’s in a really good spot right now. My stuff feels good now. It’s action at the bottom of the zone. That’s who I am. I think I just gotta keep throwing the ball in and intensity and keep feeling better mentally about it.”
The Cubs rotation should be in a good spot until he gets back but if he can return at anything near his prime form, he will help elevate the pitching staff and could be a real X-factor for this team.
23 for ’23 series
What will the Cubs’ new era at catcher look like?
What is the Cubs’ plan at third base?
Who steps up in the wake of the Seiya Suzuki injury?
What role will Christopher Morel have on the 2023 Cubs?
Who will win the Cubs’ 5th starter spot?
Where does Nick Madrigal fit on the roster?
Who will close for the Cubs?
What kind of impact will Dansby Swanson have in his first season in Chicago?
What is the plan for Matt Mervis?
Who are some under-the-radar players that could make the Opening Day roster?
What will Trey Mancini and Eric Hosmer bring to this team?
Which young Cubs pitchers will take the next step this season?