Kyle Hendricks, Kris Bryant help transform Cubs into 100-win team

Kyle Hendricks, Kris Bryant help transform Cubs into 100-win team

PITTSBURGH – The Cubs have gone from the happy-to-be-here team that crashed last year’s playoff party to a 100-win machine that’s expected to win the World Series or else be remembered as underachievers.  

The evolution of Kyle Hendricks from a fifth starter to a legitimate Cy Young Award candidate helps explain why the Cubs have lived up to the preseason hype. Kris Bryant not resting on his Rookie of the Year campaign and following it up with an MVP-level performance also created these expectations for October.

“It’s not too often that you get this much talent in one room on one team,” Bryant said after Monday night’s 12-2 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park. “We need to realize what we have here and be grateful for it. I certainly am. I couldn’t have pictured a better first two years in the big leagues.”

The Cubs won’t be leaving their season up to the coin flip of a wild-card game, the way they did 355 days ago at PNC Park, where it almost looks like the Pirates (77-79) still haven’t recovered. What once appeared to be a circle-your-calendar showdown that could decide the National League Central is now glorified spring training for the Cubs in late September.

The Cubs reached 100 wins for the first time since 1935 with Hendricks throwing six scoreless innings to lower his major-league-leading-ERA to 1.99 ERA, and Bryant hitting his 39th homer to surpass the 100-RBI mark after finishing with 99 last year.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

This is the type of star-studded team where Javier Baez can break the game wide open with a grand slam in the fourth inning – and finish with six RBI – and reporters still don’t have enough time to interview him in the postgame clubhouse.

This is also the type of confident group where Bryant can tell Chris Coghlan pregame that he’d hand over all the money in his wallet if the leadoff guy scored on his 100th RBI. That’s why Coghlan interrupted Bryant at his locker and wanted to get paid, telling the media: “Don’t let him fool you, he’s rich."

Or where three-time Manager of the Year Joe Maddon can approach a confused Hendricks after the fourth inning – not to offer some profound insight into the art of pitching – but to instead settle a question among the coaching staff in the dugout: What’s the Dartmouth College mascot?

“After he did not go to third base on that groundball, I went up to him and said, ‘Now, if I were to go to Dartmouth and went to the bookstore…’” Maddon recalled. “And he says, ‘Yeah, I’d go…’

“I said, ‘No, it has nothing to do with going first to third. If I were to go to the bookstore and I picked up a T-shirt, what would the nickname say on the front of it?’ And he said: ‘The Big Green.’

“So I learned something.”

Hendricks didn’t have to block out the blackout atmosphere or silence an announced crowd of 20,519 surrounded by sections of empty seats. A quiet, polite Ivy League graduate would never troll Pittsburgh fans on Twitter the way Jake Arrieta did last year. But the Cubs are witnessing another historic run that could catapult them through October.

The Cubs are riding the wave that always begins with starting pitching – teammate Jon Lester ranks second in the majors with a 2.28 ERA and lines up as the Game 1 starter in front of Hendricks. Now Hendricks has allowed three earned runs or fewer in each of his last 22 starts, putting up a 16-8 record, a 0.97 WHIP and 185 innings during this breakthrough season.

“Obviously, we did not anticipate all of this,” Maddon said. “He’s really exceeded, and good for him. This is something I think he can carry on for years. This is by no means a fluke. It’s not an anomaly. This is how good he’s capable of being. So it’s made a big difference that he’s been able to do what he’s done this year. No question.”

Both Hendricks, an A-ball pitcher at the time, and Bryant came out of the ashes of a 101-loss season in 2012, with Ryan Dempster approving a trade to the Texas Rangers minutes before the deadline and the Cubs using the No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 draft on the University of San Diego slugger who would become a superstar.

Theo Epstein’s front office constructed the best team in baseball ahead of schedule with polished, unselfish, intelligent athletes like Bryant and Hendricks. One hundred wins is nice, but…

“You guys know what this team’s like and where we want to go,” Hendricks said. “It’s just another step on the way.”

Javier Báez joins Cubs All-Decade Team at second base, where El Mago was born

Javier Báez joins Cubs All-Decade Team at second base, where El Mago was born

With the 2010s coming to a close, NBC Sports Chicago is unveiling its Cubs All-Decade Team, highlighting the players who made the biggest impacts on the organization from 2010-19.

There may not be a player in baseball more exciting to watch than Javier Báez.

Whether at the plate, in the field or on the bases, Báez is a human highlight real. He’s one of the most powerful hitters in baseball; he has a cannon for an arm, exemplary defensive range and is a tagging maestro. He’s a dynamic baserunner who uses his elite baseball instincts to go station-to-station while magically avoiding tags along the way.

Yeah, there’s a reason Báez is known as “El Mago.” It’s not a matter of if he’ll make an incredible play each game, but a matter of when. Things come easy for the 27-year-old full of flair who makes the most difficult plays seem routine.

Báez is a career .270/.310/.484 hitter who’s hit 110 home runs in parts of six big-league seasons. One of those long balls came in his big-league debut (Aug. 5, 2014), a go-ahead blast against the Rockies in the 12th inning. The legend of El Mago was born.

Báez is the Cubs starting shortstop, though that hasn’t always been the case. Starlin Castro was the starter in 2014; Addison Russell claimed the title from Castro in the second half of 2015, holding it down until late in the 2018 season. Russell hit the injured list that August as the Cubs simultaneously acquired Daniel Murphy in an attempt to jump-start the offense.

By the time Russell returned, Báez was a clear-cut NL MVP candidate. The latter still bounced around the infield from time-to-time, but with Murphy entrenched at second, shortstop became Báez’s primary position. He’s been the starter ever since.

Báez has played 2,646 2/3 career innings at shortstop compared to 1,856 at second base (and 629 1/3 at third). He’s exclusively a shortstop these days, but the El Mago second base days aren’t forgotten.

Báez was the co-recipient of the 2016 NLCS MVP award (along with Jon Lester) and has started back-to-back All-Star Games (2018 at second, 2019 at shortstop). He was the runner-up for the 2018 NL MVP award, posting career highs across the board: .290/.326/.554, 34 homers, 111 RBIs, 129 OPS+.

And yet, it feels like Báez is only getting started. Nevertheless, his career to date has more than earned him a spot on our Cubs All-Decade Team at second base. With that, we'll leave you with this:

Anthony Rizzo joins Cubs All-Decade Team behind efforts on and off field

Anthony Rizzo joins Cubs All-Decade Team behind efforts on and off field

With the 2010s coming to a close, NBC Sports Chicago is unveiling its Cubs All-Decade Team, highlighting the players who made the biggest impacts on the organization from 2010-19.

You saw this one coming, right?

As the Cubs’ longest tenure player, Anthony Rizzo was a shoo-in for this group. He hasn’t relinquished his starting first baseman job since making his Cubs debut in June 2012. The guy’s longevity alone is impressive.

But besides that, Rizzo has been a model of consistency during his time on the North Side. Since 2012, he’s hit 217 home runs (averaging 27 per season) and hit 32 three times from 2014-17. The lone exception? 2015, when he hit 31. So close…

As a Cub, Rizzo is a .277/.376/.496 hitter with a 132 OPS+. He produces at a high clip each season, whether he’s hitting third, cleanup or leadoff, all while simultaneously playing stellar defense. The 30-year-old is a three-time Gold Glove Award winner (2016, 2018-19).

Rizzo is the guy who comes up huge in key moments but will be there to address the media after tough losses. He’s the de facto captain of the Cubs, the guy who suffered a nasty ankle sprain in September that could have ended his regular season. Instead, he returned four days later for a key series against the rival Cardinals, as the Cubs were fighting to keep their October dreams alive.

When he’s not leading his team on the field, Rizzo is giving back to the community off of it. He’s one of the most charitable athletes in the world and recently raised $1.3 million for children’s cancer research at his “8th annual Walk-off for Cancer” in his home state of Florida.

Rizzo was the first building block of the Cubs core which snapped their infamous 108-year championship drought, but he’ll be remembered for more than that. He’s a leader on and off the field, the clear choice for starting first baseman on our Cubs All-Decade Team.

Also considered: Derrek Lee, Bryan LaHair