Why Cubs think Kyle Hendricks' first trip to the disabled list could be a good thing

Why Cubs think Kyle Hendricks' first trip to the disabled list could be a good thing

Kyle Hendricks is in uncharted waters.

This week, the 27-year-old right-hander was placed on the disabled list for the first time in his professional career with inflammation in his right hand.

Hendricks said he's missed just one start in the minor leagues with an ankle injury but has never been held out due to a physical ailment in the big leagues. The Cubs have skipped his turn in the rotation before in an effort to protect his arm, including last season before the All-Star break.

Hendricks has endured a couple rough starts in a row, allowing nine earned runs on 10 hits and three walks in his last nine innings. But he didn't feel the hand issue crop up until after his last start.

"I just kinda felt it really Tuesday in my bullpen after my start," Hendricks said. "Wednesday, it was worse, so I had to say something. Probably could push through the start if I really, really had to. 

"But at this point, the area it's in being the right hand and some of the stuff we saw in the MRI, just figure to let the inflammation get down. Take the week and then come back hopefully for Pittsburgh.

"Obviously as a player, you wanna push through and keep playing and pitch, but you gotta be smart about it, too and I accept that and know that. At this point in the year, the way the team's playing, just take your time now and come back fully healthy and hopefully ready to go and roll through the rest of the year."

At this point, Hendricks doesn't think he'll miss more than one start but when he does return, the Cubs may opt for a six-man rotation to help keep pitchers fresh for the last three-and-a-half months of the season.

The Cubs slid Mike Montgomery into Hendricks' spot Friday against the Colorado Rockies and got an opportunity to see the left-handed swingman in action as a starting pitcher. He gave up two runs in four innings as he attempts to get stretched back out from his role in the bullpen.

Hendricks isn't sure how he hurt his hand, pointing to either wear and tear or even just catching a ball wrong on his bat during batting practice or as a hitter in a game.

Joe Maddon and the Cubs are not opposed to giving Hendricks some extra time off, saving some bullets for later in the season.

After spending the first three years of his career sitting just over 89 mph with his fastball, Hendricks is down to an average of 86 mph this season. He accounted for 190 innings in the regular season last year and added another 25.1 in the postseason as he pitched into November for the first time in his life.

The Cubs just want to be cautious and ensure Hendricks is at his best heading into the stretch run and another potential trip to the postseason.

"It's not the worst thing in the world," Maddon said. "For the most part, the starters have not been pressed numbers-wise or innings-wise to this point. A guy like Kyle, we've talked about maybe the velocity's down a click, this might actually be a good thing for him.

"Just putting him on a different pattern, also. It's not the worst thing in the world. I've always attempted to plan mentally and actually for the latter part of the season, wanting to make sure guys are healthy and rested. 

"Our starters have had so many innings piled on the last couple years. I don't think it's a bad thing."

Cubs free agent focus: Hyun-Jin Ryu

Cubs free agent focus: Hyun-Jin Ryu

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.

As the Cubs look to fill out their starting rotation, it’s extremely unlikely Gerrit Cole will be joining the North Siders via free agency.

Or Stephen Strasburg.

Or Madison Bumgarner.

As the top starters available, Cole, Strasburg and Bumgarner are set to receive lucrative contracts out of the Cubs’ price range. But if Theo Epstein and Co. are looking to acquire a top-of-the-rotation arm, left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu is a much more affordable option.

Ryu was one of the best starters in baseball last season, winning the National League ERA title (2.32) en route to being named a Cy Young Award finalist. He made 29 starts and tossed 182 2/3 innings, the second-best totals of his career.

The question with Ryu isn’t whether he’ll pitch well; he holds a career 2.98 ERA and 1.164 WHIP in 126 games (125 starts). The question each season is whether he’ll stay healthy.

Ryu missed all of 2015 after undergoing surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder. He returned in July 2016, making a single start before hitting the shelf with left elbow tendinitis. He underwent a debridement procedure — like Yu Darvish last offseason — in September 2016.

Granted, Ryu has largely remained healthy since 2017. He made 24 starts that season, missing a little time with contusions in his left hip and left foot. A right groin strain kept him out for two months in 2018, though he posted a dazzling 1.97 ERA in 15 starts.

Nonetheless, teams will be wary of what they offer Ryu this offseason. The last thing you want is to sign a pitcher in his mid-30s to a long-term deal, only for him to go down with a serious arm issue. Ryu hasn't had any serious arm issues since 2016, but any injury concern is valid for the soon-to-be 33-year-old.

All negatives aside, there’s a lot to like about Ryu. He excels at inducing soft contact and ranked in the top four percent in baseball last season in average exit velocity-against (85.3 mph). Ryu doesn’t walk many batters (3.3 percent walk rate in 2019; 5.4 percent career) and strikes out a solid number (22.5 percent rate in 2019; 22 percent career).

Signing Ryu would give the Cubs three lefty starters, but that’s been the case since mid-2018, when they acquired Cole Hamels (who recently signed with the Braves). The rotation would have more certainty moving forward, too, as Jose Quintana will hit free agency next offseason. Jon Lester could as well, though he has a vesting option for 2022 if he tosses 200 innings next season.

The Cubs hope young arms Adbert Alzolay and top prospect Brailyn Marquez will contribute in the rotation for years to come. Alzolay may be on an innings limit next season and Marquez is at least a season away from making his MLB debut.

The Cubs have a rotation opening now and need to bridge the gap to their young arms for the next few seasons. Every free agent comes with question marks, and Ryu is no exception, but he is a frontline starter when healthy. He’d be a solid addition to the Cubs staff, and it won't take as big of a deal to sign him as others.

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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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