Kyle Hendricks has no intention of taking things slow in Cubs camp

Kyle Hendricks has no intention of taking things slow in Cubs camp

PEORIA, Ariz. — Kyle Hendricks has picked up right where he left off last season.

Following the best season of his career, the Cy Young candidate sees no reason to take things slow this spring training.

Nope, he's jumping right in with both feet.

Even with Joe Maddon and the Cubs taking special care to reign in the starting pitchers in an effort to maintain health.

Hendricks made his second appearance of the spring Friday at Peoria Stadium against the Seattle Mariners, allowing only a groundball single in three shutout innings, striking out four batters.

That runs his official Cactus League line to: 5 innings, 2 hits, 0 runs, 0 walks, 5 strikeouts.

Spring training stats don't matter, sure, but going beyond those numbers, Hendricks said he already feels comfortable with his mechanics and feel of his pitches.

It's as if he didn't even take three-plus months off in between that epic Game 7 of the World Series and Feb. 14, when Cubs pitchers and catchers reported to Mesa, Ariz.

"I've approached every spring the same way," Hendricks said. "I know what I need to get in throwing-wise and what I need to do to be ready.

"I've learned more about myself what I need to do to get ready, but as far as kinda taking it easy or waiting until Opening Day, that's not really my style."

Hendricks is unique in that he throws nearly every day, even in spring training. Most pitchers take time to work up to that.

After throwing approximately 20 pitches in his first spring start last week, Hendricks went and tossed another 40 or so pitches in the bullpen immediately after, just because he felt he needed to throw more and wanted to build up his arm strength.

"You just have to know who you are and for me, it's taken me years to find my routine and what works best," he said. "I definitely know now I'm one of those guys that likes to throw a little more."

Here's Hendricks' typical four-day plan in between starts, as he ran down Friday afternoon:

Day 1: Weighted ball routine
Day 2: Bullpen + band work
Day 3: Bodyblade routine
Day 4: Light band work

That changes a little bit, of course, in spring training when he's not necessarily throwing every fifth day, but he said he's also worked in long toss and is still making sure he does something every day.

"Shoulder strengthening stuff has really helped me stay in shape, prevent injury," Hendricks said. "So I put a lot of stock into it. I do it every day.

"I know some guys don't. Some guys only do it bullpen days or when they start. I think it's just a personal preference thing."

Of course, Hendricks is also a unique case in that he is very low-stress, from his repeatable delivery to his below-average velocity to his incredibly calm demeanor that helps keep him from overthrowing or trying to do too much.

That being said, Hendricks still endured the longest season of his career in 2016, throwing 215.1 innings (27 more than 2015 or any other year) and pitched into November for the first time ever.

So is there any part of him that thinks he needs to take the foot off the gas a little bit after last season?

"It's something you really have to watch because each year, I've thrown more and more," he said. "It's really keeping up on your arm care and your workouts and your running. Just being in good shape helps: Preventing injury, those kinds of things.

"But you have to just be aware of your body. I know what my body feels like now that I've gone through a couple full seasons, so it's just really being aware of that and seeing if you are starting to regress a little bit.

"If you notice that, maybe take a step back. But I haven't hit that point, really, ever. Until I get there, I'm just gonna keep with my routine, but definitely need to be aware of that."

Hendricks feels like everything is right where it needs to be on March 10, a little over three weeks before the Cubs' Opening Day tilt against the Cardinals in St. Louis.

"You can't be searching for things that aren't there," Hendricks said. "So if everything's good and feels good for me, I'm taking it for what it is and I'm just moving forward and making sure my arm's in shape to be ready for Opening Day.

"You can take more advantage of what you're doing in spring if your mechanics are in line and you're already feeling good about everything. You can take advantage of the next step, working on the sequences with the catchers already or making one start feeling like it's a regular season start and taking it a little more seriously.

"There's a lot of things you can do, I think, to progress yourself even if everything's falling in line already."

Cubs free agent focus: Will Harris

Cubs free agent focus: Will Harris

With Hot Stove season underway, NBC Sports Chicago is taking a look at some of MLB’s top free agents and how they’d fit with the Cubs.

The Cubs are looking for bullpen help this offseason. Enter Astros free agent right-hander Will Harris.

Harris has quietly been one of the game’s best relievers since 2015. In 309 games (297 innings), the 35-year-old holds a 2.36 ERA and 0.987 WHIP. Over that same period, his ERA ranks third among relievers with at least 250 innings pitched, trailing Zack Britton (1.89) and Aroldis Chapman (2.16).

2019 was one of Harris' finest seasons yet, as he posted a pristine 1.50 ERA and 0.933 WHIP in 68 appearances. Of the 60 innings he pitched last season, 49 2/3 of them came in innings 7-9, an area the Cubs bullpen needs the most help.

Cubs relievers posted a 3.98 ERA last season (No. 8 in MLB), but that number is deceiving. The bullpen was OK in low and medium-leverage spots — as defined by FanGraphs — posting a 3.19 ERA (tied for No. 2 in MLB). But in high leverage spots, they sported a woeful 7.92 ERA (No. 24 in MLB) and a 15.4 percent walk rate (tied for last in MLB).

"It was a real interesting year in the 'pen," Cubs president Theo Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference. "Our inability to pitch in high-leverage situations was a clear problem and was a contributing factor — we had the third-worst record in all of baseball behind just the Tigers and Orioles in combined 1 and 2-run games.

"Our inability to pitch in high-leverage moments kind of haunted us throughout the year, and that’s something that I have to do a better job of finding options for."

Those walks often spelled doom for the Cubs. Fans remember all too well the three-straight free passes Steve Cishek handed out on Sept. 10 against the Padres, the final of which was a walk-off (literally). David Phelps and Cishek combined to walk three-straight Cardinals on Sept. 20, two of whom came around to score. The Cubs lost that game 2-1; there are plenty more similar instances.

Harris, meanwhile, walked 14 batters (6.1 percent walk rate) in 2019 — 15 if you count the one he allowed in 12 postseason appearances. His career walk rate is 6.2 percent.

Four Cubs late-inning relievers are free agent this winter in Cishek, Brandon Kintzler, Brandon Morrow and Pedro Strop. Cishek and Kintzler had solid 2019 seasons, while Strop had his worst season as a Cub. Morrow hasn’t pitched since July 2018, but he and the Cubs are working on a minor league deal, according to WSCR’s Bruce Levine. Strop has expressed his desire to return next season.

Harris regressing in 2020 is a concern. Relievers are the most volatile players in baseball, and Harris could see his performance sag in 2020 after pitching an extra month last season. Teams will have to trust his track record and assume a regression isn't forthcoming.

But assuming Cishek, Kintzler, Morrow and Strop all won’t return in 2020, the Cubs have a couple late-inning relief vacancies. Harris is one of the better available options, and he’d help the Cubs cut down on the walks dished out by their bullpen.

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Cubs add reliever Daniel Winkler in another low-risk, high-reward move


Cubs add reliever Daniel Winkler in another low-risk, high-reward move

The Cubs have reportedly made another low-risk gamble on a bullpen arm.

According to MLB Insider Robert Murray, the Cubs have reached an agreement with right-hander Daniel Winkler on a one-year deal.

Winkler, an Effingham, Ill. native holds a career 3.68 ERA, 3.65 FIP, 1.176 WHIP and 10.3 K/9 in 117 games (100 1/3 innings). He spent 2015-19 with the Atlanta Braves, undergoing Tommy John surgery in June 2014 and another elbow surgery in April 2017. The Braves dealt him to the San Francisco Giants at the 2019 trade deadline for closer Mark Melancon.

Winkler posted a 4.98 ERA in 27 big league games last season and a 2.93 ERA in 30 minor league games. His best MLB season came with the Braves in 2018, as he made a career-high 69 appearances and posted a 3.43 ERA, striking out 69 batters in 60 1/3 innings.

The Cubs entered the offseason in search of bullpen upgrades following a rough 2019. That search includes finding pitchers who may not have long track records, but qualities demonstrating their ability to make an impact at the big-league level. In this case, Winkler possesses solid spin rates on his cutter, four-seamer and curveball, meaning he induces soft contact and swings and misses.

“We need to keep unearthing pitchers who we acquire for the right reasons, we work well with and have the physical and mental wherewithal to go out and miss a lot of bats,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference, “which is something we didn’t do a lot of — although we did increasingly in the second half with this pitching group — and find more guys who can go out and pitch in high-leverage spots."

The Cubs were successful in unearthing arms last season, acquiring Rowan Wick and Brad Wieck from the Padres in separate deals. They recently acquired Jharel Cotton from the Oakland A’s in a similar buy low move.

Not every pitcher will be as successful as the Wi(e)cks were last season, but the Cubs must continue making low-risk bullpen moves. At the best, they find a legitimate relief arms; at the worst, they move on from a low-cost investments.

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