Cubs: How Kyle Hendricks became such a critical part of The Plan

Cubs: How Kyle Hendricks became such a critical part of The Plan

Kyle Hendricks gets overshadowed in a rotation fronted by a Cy Young Award winner (Jake Arrieta) and two-time World Series champions with a $155 million contract (Jon Lester) and a love-to-hate reputation among opposing fans and players (John Lackey).

Hendricks also gets overlooked on a high-wattage team with an All-Star infield featuring faces of the franchise Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant. Plus a three-time Manager of the Year (Joe Maddon) with a distinctive look, more than 313,000 Twitter followers, a growing T-shirt empire and those Binny’s Beverage Depot commercials.

But in trying to create a sense of momentum after the All-Star break, the Cubs will give the ball to Hendricks on Friday afternoon against the Texas Rangers, before the American League’s best team unleashes Yu Darvish and Cole Hamels this weekend at Wrigley Field.

“Yeah, there’s a lot of headlines on our team, so I’m pretty far down there,” Hendricks said with a laugh. “It’s fine with me. I like it that way.

“If there’s not much going on, not much hype, that’s fine. I’m just going out there, trying to do my thing and win some ballgames. That’s it.”

Hendricks actually leads a slumping rotation with a 2.55 ERA, ranking sixth in the National League between Miami Marlins ace Jose Fernandez (2.52) and New York Mets superhero Noah Syndergaard (2.56). Opponents have generated only a .589 OPS against Hendricks, a shutdown that matches up to Stephen Strasburg’s 12-0 start for the Washington Nationals (.584). A 1.03 WHIP also makes Hendricks a top-10 NL pitcher in that category.

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No doubt, there’s an element of Maddon manipulating the game, playing matchups and minimizing damage. But Hendricks did beat Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke and the extreme-makeover Arizona Diamondbacks in his first start this season. Hendricks also threw six scoreless innings against the first-place Nationals during that four-game sweep at Wrigley Field in early May.

Hendricks lost a 1-0 decision to Madison Bumgarner and the San Francisco Giants in front of a sellout crowd at AT&T Park and a national-TV audience. Hendricks beat the Los Angeles Dodgers and Pittsburgh Pirates in June, outperforming pitching prodigies Julio Urias and Jameson Taillon.

“Kyle’s been as steady as anybody among us,” Maddon said.

Hendricks would come across as edgier if he had long hair, a beard, a body covered with tattoos and no filter during his postgame press conferences. His potential would seem more intriguing if he went to a junior college you never heard of before. Self-promotion is not his specialty. He gets recognized in Chicago “once in a blue moon.”

It might not translate on TV or in street clothes, but Hendricks does have broad shoulders and long arms, growing into what’s become a 6-foot-3, 190-pound body. His father, John, had worked as a golf pro in California.

Dartmouth College head coach Bob Whalen – whose late father, “Chick,” had been a longtime scout for the Pirates – noticed the projectable pitching frame and the levers and athleticism to repeat a delivery during a showcase at Dodger Stadium.

In terms of perception, Hendricks would have overlapped with Bryant for a season at the University of San Diego if he had gone to his second choice out of Capistrano Valley High School.

Forget the polite manner off the field, Hendricks has enough guts and beneath-the-surface intensity to go 22-15 with a 3.23 ERA and a 1.11 WHIP through his first 359 innings in The Show. 

“He always knew what he wanted to do,” Whalen said. “He absolutely believed in his heart that he was going to pitch in the big leagues.”

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That Ivy League degree in economics obviously helps Hendricks process and apply the game-planning system engineered by coaches Chris Bosio and Mike Borzello. Hendricks has fully incorporated his curveball and four-seam fastball – increasing the effectiveness of his changeup and two-seam fastball – and become more comfortable pitching inside and making adjustments on the fly.

“Learning how to mix those weapons has made me a completely different guy,” Hendricks said.

This is the best-case scenario Theo Epstein’s baseball-operations group hoped for while Ryan Dempster played “Golden Tee” in the team’s Clark Street headquarters on July 31, 2012, consenting to a deal with the Rangers and watching the seconds tick down on the MLB Network trade-deadline clock.

Unless a mystery team reads the market’s supply-and-demand dynamics and becomes a surprise seller, the Cubs are realistic enough to know they probably won’t feel as desperate as other contenders and won’t land a frontline starting pitcher at this year’s deadline.

Hendricks is 26 years old, under club control through the 2020 season and ready to reboot a 53-35 team that lost 15 of its last 21 games before the All-Star break and hasn’t won consecutive series since early-to-mid June.

“We’ve handled all the pressure, all the expectations,” Hendricks said. “Obviously, we’re in a tough stretch right now, but like Joe says: Every team’s going to go through that. (Keeping) up the pace we were on for the first part of the year – no team does that.

“Going through spurts like this, sometimes it makes you stronger – if you can learn from it and come out of it. Hopefully, we can just take the positives out of it, turn it around after this break and get back to winning.”

Maybe the early exit was just what the Cubs needed

Maybe the early exit was just what the Cubs needed

A year ago, the Cubs world was in essentially the exact same place — trying to find answers for a season that ended earlier than expected.

There was only one difference: Time.

The 2018 Cubs woke up on the morning of Oct. 22 having been out of action almost three full weeks. That's a long time in terms of decompressing, letting your body heal and evaluating what went wrong.

A year ago today, Ben Zobrist was in the midst of trying to heal his ailing wrist after a third straight trip deep into the postseason.

A year ago today, Theo Epstein was roughly 48 hours removed from his annual end-of-season eulogy.

A year ago today, Kris Bryant was trying to catch his breath after what he called the most draining campaign of his life.

Yet we woke up Monday morning 19 full days removed from the latest iteration of Epstein's end-of-season eulogy, Zobrist is making light-hearted Instagram videos and Bryant is already nearly three weeks into the process of letting his left shoulder heal completely and adding strength.

Of course, that trio of Cubs figures would gladly trade in these extra few weeks of time off for another shot at the NL pennant, even if they fell short in the NLCS again.

Still, there's a lot of value in extra time off, especially after three straight falls where they went deep into October playing high-stress baseball. The Cubs absolutely will go in 2019 much fresher than they went into this year's spring training.

For example, Jon Lester threw 8.1 fewer innings this October than 2017 and 29.2 fewer innings than 2016. Zobrist played 8 fewer games this October than 2018 and 16 fewer than 2016 (he also won the World Series in 2015 as a member of the Kansas City Royals). That matters when players' ages start creeping up into the mid-to-late 30s.

It shouldn't take the sting out of the disappointing end to 2018 for the Cubs or their fans, but extra time off for these guys is certainly not a bad thing. 

The Cubs have already gotten the ball rolling on offseason changes, including replacing Chili Davis at hitting coach with Anthony Iapoce

On top of that, each individual player has now had enough time to evaluate why or how they went wrong offensively down the stretch.

"A full winter — especially this extra month that we unfortunately have — is a luxury in baseball," Epstein said. "There are things that come up all the time during the course of the season with teams and with individual players that you say, 'We'd love to address.' But that's so hard to address during the season because there's always another game tomorrow. 

"Guys are surviving. We have to wait 'til the offseason, then we can get right physically, then we can wade into the mental game, then we can address this swing change, then we can handle this fundamental. Well, we now have that luxury — unfortunately — of a full offseason. How do we take full advantage of this so we're never in this position again?

"We don't want to be a part of an offensive collapse in the second half again. We don't want to be part of losing a division lead late again. We don't want to be part of looking back and recognizing that, gosh, maybe a greater sense of urgency from Game 1 through 162 would've led to one more game and then we're still playing. We don't want to be part of that ever again, so we need to make good use of this time."

The early exit also helps to create a chip on the shoulder for each member of the organization. It's hard to see the Cubs spending much time in 2019 lacking the same "urgency" they had this summer. The painful NL Wild-Card loss will leave a bad taste in their mouths that can carry over all the way until next October. 

Like Lester said, sometimes you "need to get your dick knocked in the dirt in order to appreciate where you're at." 

We saw that play out on the North Side of Chicago from 2015 into 2016 and Cole Hamels has seen this script before with a young core of players in Philadelphia.

In 2007, the Phillies made the playoffs, but were swept out of the NLDS by the Colorado Rockies. They rebounded to win the World Series the next fall over Joe Maddon's Tampa Bay Rays.

"That [2007 sweep] really kind of taught us what the postseason experience was and what it was to not just play to the end of the season and instead to play to the end of the postseason," Hamels said. "This is a tremendous experience for a lot of guys and you have to go through the hardships before you get to enjoy the big moments.

"I know there's a lot of players here that have won a World Series, but there's also a lot that didn't have that sort of participation that you would kind of look towards, so I think this is great for them. 

"It's exciting to see what they're gonna be able to do next year and the year after that because this is a tremendous team here with the talent that they have. It's gonna be a great couple years."

Should the Cubs bring Daniel Murphy back in 2019?

Should the Cubs bring Daniel Murphy back in 2019?

With MLB Hot Stove season about 10 days away, Cubs fans are on the edge of their seats waiting to see how Theo Epstein's front office will reshape an underperforming lineup this winter.

The first step in that will be determining if there is a future with Daniel Murphy in Chicago and if so, what that future might entail. 

Murphy's introduction to the North Side fanbase was rocky, but he drew rave reviews from his teammates and coaches for how he conducted himself in the month-and-a-half he wore a Cubs uniform. 

He also filled a serious hole in the Cubs lineup, hitting .297 with an .800 OPS in 35 games (138 at-bats) while spending most of his time in the leadoff spot, helping to set the tone. Extrapolating Murphy's Cubs tenure over 550 plate appearances, it would be good for 23 homers, 86 runs, 49 RBI and 23 doubles over a full season. That would be worth 3.4 WAR by FanGraphs' measure, which would've ranked third on the Cubs among position players in 2018 behind only Javy Baez (5.3 WAR) and Ben Zobrist (3.6). (By comparison, Baseball Reference rated Murphy a -0.2 WAR player with the Cubs due to a much worse rating on defense.) 

Murphy's performance defensively at second base left quite a bit to be desired, but it's also worth pointing out he had major surgery on his right knee last fall. The procedure wasn't just a cleanup — he had microfracture surgery and cartilage debridement and wasn't able to return to the field until the middle of June this summer despite an Oct. 20, 2017 surgery.

The Cubs will begin the 2019 season without a clear, everyday choice at second base and the lineup can use a guy like Murphy, who has a great approach each time up and leads baseball with a .362 batting average with runners in scoring position since the start of the 2016 season.

So could a reunion be in the cards?

"I wouldn't rule anything out," Epstein said the day after the Cubs' 2018 campaign ended prematurely. "It was a pleasure having Daniel here. He did a lot to right our offense right after he got here and contribute while being asked to play a bigger role than we envisioned when we got him because of some other injuries, because of our lack of performance offensively and then because of the schedule. He was asked to play a lot more than expected, than probably he was ready to based on the proximity to his knee surgery.

"So I think he's gonna have a real beneficial offseason, get even stronger and be ready to contribute next year. Which league that's in and for what team remains to be seen. But I certainly think he acquitted himself well here, was REALLY respected by his teammates. Our guys loved talking hitting with him. It was a daily occurrence. Long discussions about hitting with him, picking his brain. 

"We look a lot better with him than without him, so I wouldn't rule anything out."

There's a lot to unpack here. Epstein was refreshingly honest throughout his whole press conference and that continued with regards to Murphy.

For starters, notice how Epstein first said he wasn't sure "what league" Murphy will be playing in. The Cubs president of baseball operations is typically extremely measured when speaking with the public and he almost never says anything by accident.

Murphy will turn 34 April 1 and was never renowned as an elite fielder even before that major knee surgery. Meaning: The writing has been on the wall for over a year that the veteran may be best suited for a designated hitter role with his new contract and Epstein is clearly well aware of that perception/narrative.

The other aspect of Epstein's comments is how he began and ended his statement on Murphy — that he wouldn't rule anything out and the Cubs obviously thought it was a successful pairing.

It's hard to argue with that on the offensive side of things and his impact was also felt off the field, where he was praised often by his teammates and coaches for talking hitting with younger players like Ian Happ and David Bote. 

Imagine how the final 6 weeks of the season would've looked had the Cubs not acquired Murphy in the middle of August to agument the lineup. The Brewers would've probably nabbed the division lead well before a Game 163.

Still, Murphy's hitting prowess both on and off the field wasn't enough to help the Cubs lineup avoid a slide that led to a date with the couch before the NLDS even began. Epstein's statement about how the Cubs "look a lot better" with Murphy than without is probably more about how fresh the sting was from the inept offense that managed just 2 runs scored in 22 innings in the final two games of the season.

Given his consistency the last few years, his advanced approach at the plate and his (recent) unrivaled ability to come through in key spots, Murphy's bat would be a welcome addition to any Cubs lineup moving forward. 

But it would still be tough to fit Murphy on the Cubs' 2019 roster for a variety of reasons. 

For starters, if the Cubs truly have a desire to write out a more consistent lineup next year, it's tough to add another aging veteran to a mix that already includes Ben Zobrist (who will be 38 next year), especially when they both spend a majority of their time at the same position (second base) and shouldn't be considered everyday players at this stage in their respective careers.

Murphy's defense/range also doesn't figure to get much better as he ages — even with an offseason to get his knee back up to 100 percent health — and second base is a key spot for run prevention, especially in turning double plays with a pitching staff that induces a lot of contact and groundballs.

Offensively, Murphy isn't perfect, either. He's never walked much, but in 2018, he posted his lowest walk rate since 2013. He also struck out 15.7 percent of the time in a Cubs uniform and while that's a small sample size, it still represents his highest K% since his rookie 2008 season (18.5 percent). 

Then there's the splits — the left-handed Murphy hit just .238 with a .564 OPS vs. southpaws in 2018, a far cry from the .319 average and .864 OPS he posted against right-handed pitchers. That was a steep drop-off from the previous three seasons (2015-17), in which he put up a .296 average and .810 OPS against lefties.

Add it all up and Murphy's potential fit with the 2019 Cubs is questionable at best, especially if an American League team hands him more money and years to come DH for them and hit near the top of their order.

But like Epstein said, don't rule anything out.