Cubs

Cubs’ Kyle Hendricks ready for the next biggest start of his career

Cubs’ Kyle Hendricks ready for the next biggest start of his career

Kyle Hendricks succeeded in the spotlight Oct. 22, taking his methodical, measured mentality into a nervy Game 6 clincher against Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw. The result was 7 1/3 innings of two-hit shutout ball in which the 26-year-old Dartmouth alum faced the minimum to beat a guy many consider the best pitcher in baseball, and it sent the Cubs to their first World Series since 1945.

The playoff stage clearly hasn’t been too big for Hendricks, who led baseball in ERA (2.13) and soft contact rate (25.1 percent) in the regular season. He’s carried that success into October, allowing only three runs over 16 1/3 innings in the 2016 postseason. The way he’s gone about pitching those games and processing the magnitude of them hasn’t been any different than how he worked from April through September. 

“I've never seen him rush through anything,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I’m sure he takes time brushing his teeth. I would imagine his cup of coffee takes two hours to drink.”

Hendricks, who was standing about 20 feet away from Maddon when his manager grinned through those comments Thursday, laughed when he got his turn at the podium: “I don't drink coffee, which probably doesn't come as a shock.”

But that deliberate approach Maddon was alluding to with his coffee comment has helped Hendricks maintain his effectiveness as the playoff pressure has mounted over the last few weeks. 

“It took me a long time to fall into this mindset,” Hendricks said. “You can find yourself falling out of it and falling back into it. A lot of it has to do with confidence, I think. At the end of the day, if you are in that mindset where you're having simple thoughts, really you're on the mound, you know you can clearly recall your game plan, what you're trying to do to this hitter, and then you can simplify your thought and commit to just one pitch. When you have those kind of thoughts going through your head, you feel pretty confident, and you know you're going to do pretty well.”

Hendricks’ changeup has been an outstanding put-away pitch in the postseason, with the right-hander mixing it in well with his four-seam fastball and two-seam sinker. Opposing batters are swinging and missing at 21.7 percent of Hendricks’ changeups, according to TexasLeaguers.com, in his three playoff starts (among Cubs starters in the playoffs, that’s the second-highest whiff rate on any pitch only to John Lackey cutter, which has a 23.7 percent swing-and-miss rate).

[SHOP: Buy a "Try Not to Suck" shirt with proceeds benefiting Joe Maddon's Respect 90 Foundation & other Cubs Charities]

Hendricks, too, has looked extremely comfortable in his starts at Wrigley Field — like that Game 6 outing against the Dodgers — posting a 1.32 ERA while limiting opposing hitters to a .589 OPS at home in the regular season (those numbers were a 2.95 ERA and .643 opponent OPS on the road). 

So the stage is set for Hendricks to make, and succeed in, what will either be his final or second-to-last start of the 2016 season. Friday will mark Hendricks’ first career World Series start, but he hasn’t shown any reason to think the moment will be too big for him. 

“I'm just going to take advantage of it,” Hendricks said. “I mean, how often do you get these opportunities? You dream of it as a kid. This is what you work all year long for.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Manny Machado’s value and other Cubs offseason wish list items

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Manny Machado’s value and other Cubs offseason wish list items

Did Manny Machado’s value take a hit at all after he openly admitted hustling isn’t his “cup of tea”? Our Cubs team (David Kaplan, Kelly Crull, Tony Andracki, Jeff Nelson) debate that, plus the potential fit of Machado or Bryce Harper for the 2019 Cubs and beyond.

The crew also runs down the top items on the Cubs’ offseason wish list – ranging from bullpen help to infield depth to a set leadoff hitter – in what may be the most impactful winter in Theo Epstein’s tenure in Chicago.

Listen to the podcast here or via the embedded player below:

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

There are plenty of intriguing Cubs storylines to monitor this offseason from their potential pursuit of the big free agents to any other changes that may come to the coaching staff or roster after a disappointing finish to the 2018 campaign.

But there's one question simmering under the radar in Cubs circles when it comes to this winter: How will the team solve the shortstop conundrum?

Just a few years ago, the Cubs had "too many" shortstops. Now, there are several different factors at play here that makes it a convoluted mess.

First: What will the Cubs do with Addison Russell? The embattled shortstop is in the midst of a suspension for domestic violence that will keep him off an MLB diamond for at least the first month of 2019.

Has Russell already played his last game with the Cubs? Will they trade him or send him packing in any other fashion this winter?

Theo Epstein mentioned several times he felt the organization needs to show support to the victim in the matter (Russell's ex-wife, Melisa) but also support for Russell. Does that mean they would keep him a part of the team at least through the early part of 2019?

Either way, Russell's days in Chicago are numbered and his play on the field took another big step back in 2018 as he fought through a hand injury and experienced a major dip in power. With his performance on the field and the off-field issues, it will be hard to justify a contract worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $4 million in his second year of arbitration (prorated, with a month's worth of pay taken out for the suspension).

Even if Russell is on the roster in 2019, Javy Baez is unquestionably the shortstop for at least the first month while Russell is on suspension. 

But what about beyond Baez if the Cubs want to give him a breather or disaster strikes and he's forced to miss time with an injury?

At the moment, there's nothing but question marks on the current Cubs shortstop depth chart throughout the entire organization and they're certainly going to need other options at the most important defensive position (outside of pitcher/catcher). 

There's David Bote, who subbed in for Baez at short once in September when Baez needed a break and Russell was on the disabled list. But while Bote's defense at third base and second base has opened eyes around the Cubs, he has only played 45 games at short across seven minor-league seasons, including 15 games in 2018. There's also the offensive question marks with the rookie, who hit just .176 with a .559 OPS and 40 strikeouts in 108 at-bats after that epic ultimate grand slam on Aug. 12.

The Cubs' other current shortstop options include Mike Freeman (a 31-year-old career minor-leaguer), Ben Zobrist (who will be 38 in 2019 and has played all of 13 innings at shortstop since 2014), Ryan Court (a 30-year-old career minor leaguer) and Chesny Young (a 26-year-old minor-leaguer who has posted a .616 OPS in 201 Triple-A games).

Maybe Joe Maddon would actually deploy Kris Bryant at shortstop in case of emergency like a Baez injury ("necessity is the mother of invention," as Maddon loves to say), but that seems a lot more like a fun talking point than a legit option at this current juncture.

So even if Russell sticks around, there's no way the Cubs can go into the first month of the season with just Baez and Bote as the only shortstop options on a team that with World Series or bust expectations.

The Cubs will need to acquire some shortstop depth this winter in some capacity, whether it's adding to the Triple-A Iowa roster or getting a veteran who can also back up other positions. Right now, the free agent pool of potential shortstops is pretty slim beyond Manny Machado.

Epstein always says he and his front office look to try to mitigate risk and analyze where things could go wrong to sink the Cubs' season and through that lense, shortstop is suddenly right up there behind adding more bullpen help this winter.