No longer underrated, Kyle Hendricks insists nothing changes as he ramps things up in Cubs camp

No longer underrated, Kyle Hendricks insists nothing changes as he ramps things up in Cubs camp

MESA, Ariz. – It's March 4, 2017.

It's been four months and two days since Kyle Hendricks was taken out of Game 7 of the World Series in the fifth inning by Joe Maddon and he's still getting asked about it from fans.


"Pretty much everybody I run into, that's one of the first things [they say]," Hendricks said.

After throwing two completely stress-free innings in his Cactus League debut in the Cubs' 9-3 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers Saturday, Hendricks said fans were still yelling, "Why'd they take you out?" at him.

Every time that happens, Hendricks — who is extremely polite and one of the nicest guys in the game — has a stock response ready to go:

"I say, 'Hey, we won, right?' That's all that matters," Hendricks said. "I really just tell them I was expecting [Game 7] to be a short start going into it, which it was.

"You guys [the media] have heard it all before, but to hear it from fans sometimes, it gives you a little reassurance. It's good they're on your side."

He's got a point: It is validation, but it also represents a stark contrast to where the 27-year-old pitcher was for most of 2016, when fans couldn't tell him apart from the average accountant while he took public transit to and from work at Wrigley Field.

This time last year, Hendricks was in spring training fighting for a spot in the Cubs' rotation.

Now, he's the reigning National League ERA leader and a third-place finisher in Cy Young voting.

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Even though the situation has changed, Hendricks is still trying to keep the same mindset and maintain a chip on his shoulder.

He did admit, however, that it's weird to not have to fight for a spot for the first time in his career.

"You have to — I think Joe said it — you can't be too comfortable with it," Hendricks said. "I've had to make sure I'm pushing myself, be aware of where my pitches are at, making sure I have an angle on it. 

"You can't slow-play it. You wanna give yourself some time to get ready, but you can't take it so slow where you're not sharp for Day 1. ... The situation may have changed a little bit, but in my mind, I'm still just getting myself ready, doing the same things, throwing my bullpens, getting ready for the first day."

Hendricks said he's gotten enough throwing in this spring; he only tossed 16 pitches in two clean innings in Saturday's game, so he went back out to the bullpen and threw 40 more there.

One of Hendricks' main points of focus this spring is developing his curveball, so he can use it more in 2017, particularly late in counts. Last year, he felt like he used it more to open counts and set up hitters and not as much as a weapon to put guys away.

So yes, he does think there is room to improve on his 2016 season (16-8, 2.13 ERA, 0.979 WHIP). You don't even have to ask.

"You're always competing with yourself, in a way," Hendricks said. "As long as you don't focus on the outside factors. Focus on what you can control.

"For me, yeah, I'm always trying to raise the bar and get better. It's always a process. You gotta see what the hitters are giving you. That's really a big goal of mine — be aware of what the hitters are trying to do to me in spring and see what adjustments I can make."

Why Cubs core's desire to sign extensions might not matter anymore

Why Cubs core's desire to sign extensions might not matter anymore

The day after Kris Bryant suggested that first-time fatherhood and the dramatic reality of world events have changed how he looks at his future with the Cubs, general manager Jed Hoyer outlined why it might be all but moot.

Setting aside the fact that the Cubs aren’t focusing on contract extensions with anyone at this time of health and economic turmoil, the volatility and unpredictability of a raging COVID-19 pandemic in this country and its economic fallout have thrown even mid-range and long-term roster plans into chaos.

“This is without question the most difficult time we’ve ever had as far as projecting those things,” Hoyer said. “All season in projecting this year, you weren’t sure how many games we were going to get in. Projecting next season obviously has challenges, and who knows where the country’s going to be and the economy’s going to be.”

Bryant, a three-time All-Star and former MVP, is eligible for free agency after next season. He and the club have not engaged in extension talks for three years. And those gained little traction while it has looked increasingly likely since then that Bryant’s agent, Scott Boras, would eventually take his star client to market — making Bryant a widely circulated name in trade talks all winter.

MORE: Scott Boras: Why Kris Bryant's free agency won't be impacted by economic crisis

The Cubs instead focused last winter on talks with All-Star shortstop Javy Báez, making “good” or little progress depending on which side you talked to on a given day — until the pandemic shut down everything in March.

Báez, Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber are both also eligible for free agency after next season, with All-Star catcher Willson Contreras right behind them a year later.

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None has a multiyear contract, and exactly what the Cubs are willing to do about that even if MLB pulls off its 60-game plan this year is hard for even the team’s front office executives to know without knowing how hard the pandemic will continue to hammer America’s health and financial well-being into the winter and next year.

Even with a vaccine and treatments by then, what will job markets look like? The economy at large? The economy of sports? Will anyone want to gather with 40,000 others in a stadium to watch a game anytime soon?

And even if anyone could answer all those questions, who can be sure how the domino effect will impact salary markets for athletes?

“There’s no doubt that forecasting going forward is now much more challenging from a financial standpoint,” Hoyer said. “But that’s league-wide. Anyone that says they have a feel for where the nation’s economy and where the pandemic is come next April is lying.”

The Cubs front office already was in a tenuous place financially, its payroll budget stretched past its limit and a threat to exceed MLB’s luxury tax threshold for a second consecutive season.

And after a quick playoff exit in 2018 followed by the disappointment of missing the playoffs in 2019, every player on the roster was in play for a possible trade over the winter — and even more so at this season’s trade deadline without a strong start to the season.

Now what?

For starters, forget about dumping short-term assets or big contracts for anything of value from somebody’s farm system. Even if baseball can get to this year’s Aug. 31 trade deadline with a league intact and playing, nobody is predicting more than small level trades at that point — certainly not anything close to a blockbuster.

After that, it may not get any clearer for the sport in general, much less the Cubs with their roster and contract dilemmas.

“We have a lot of conversations about it internally, both within the baseball side and then with the business side as well,” Hoyer said. “But it’s going to take a long time and probably some sort of macro things happening for us to really have a good feel for where we’re going to be in ’21 and beyond.”


Cubs' GM Jed Hoyer: Everyone in MLB has to take COVID-19 'equally' serious

Cubs' GM Jed Hoyer: Everyone in MLB has to take COVID-19 'equally' serious

Veteran umpire Joe West made waves Tuesday downplaying the severity of COVID-19 in an interview with The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal. 

“I don’t believe in my heart that all these deaths have been from the coronavirus," West said. "I believe it may have contributed to some of the deaths.”

As far as the Cubs are concerned, those comments don’t represent how to treat the virus. In fact, they’ve gone out of their way to ensure everyone treats it with equal severity.

“That’s one of the things we've really tried internally to instill in our players and our coaches,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said Tuesday, “[that] everyone here has to take it equally [serious].”

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Hoyer noted like the world, MLB isn’t immune to people having different viewpoints on the virus — those who show concern and those who don’t. This echoes comments made by manager David Ross earlier on Tuesday, and Hoyer said those he’s talked to with the Cubs don’t feel the same way as West.

The Cubs had an up close and personal look at pitching coach Tommy Hottovy’s battle with COVID-19 during baseball’s shutdown. It took the 38-year-old former big leaguer 30 harrowing days to test negative, and in the past week many Cubs have said watching him go through that hit home. 

“When you get a 38-year-old guy in wonderful health and he talks about his challenges with it,” Hoyer said, “I think that it takes away some of those different viewpoints.”

To ensure everyone stays safe and puts the league in the best position to complete a season, MLB needs strict adherence to its protocols.

“I think that's one of our goals and one of the things that we feel is vital is that we have to make sure everyone views this the same way, because we can't have a subset of people within our group that don't view it with the same severity,” Hoyer said.

“That’s not gonna work. We're not gonna be successful."