MESA, Arizona — All the Cubs’ plans for their starting rotation start with Kyle Hendricks.
As obvious as that sounds, the basic part of that became official Thursday on Arizona when pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said Hendricks is the team’s starter Monday in its Cactus League opener against Yu Darvish’s Padres — which lines him up for the April 1 Opening Day starter at Wrigley Field that has been the worst-kept-secret/dance-around-the-question topic during the first few days of spring training.
The more nuanced part involves such things as workloads and sixth (and seventh and eighth) starters, piggyback starts and bullpen games as Major League Baseball leaps from a pandemic-shortened, 60-game schedule last year back to a full 162 games again this year.
“The whole time we’ve kind of had that March 1 day pegged for Hendricks,” Hottovy said of how last year’s Opening Day starter landed on Monday’s spring opener this time. “That was kind of going to be it the whole time just as you kind of work backwards from the start of the season. Even though we lost some games at the beginning [when the spring schedules slightly shortened recently], it was actually going to line up perfectly for Kyle.”
Obviously, Hottovy means that lines Hendricks up for Opening Day, right?
“It lines up for the start of the season,” Hottovy said.
Isn’t that Opening Day?
“There will be multiple guys that technically could be ready,” Hottovy said. “Just for Kyle and his workload, that’s what we wanted to do, just to give him some opportunity to get extra off days in as we get into it, but he’s in a good place now and we want him to be ready for that.”
After a lengthy league shutdown and quick ramp-up to the short season, Hendricks was surprisingly sharp — especially compared to others — and pitched a complete-game shutout in the opener.
He went on to make 12 starts and pitch 81 1/3 innings — one of only three pitchers in the majors to reach the 80-inning mark.
Which brings up the workload question and the Cubs’ plans to getting Hendricks, Jake Arrieta, Zach Davies, Alec Mills, Trevor Williams, Adbert Alzolay, et al, through the season healthy and with gas left in September (October?).
“We’re going to be creative,” said Hottovy, who, like manager David Ross, ruled out a six-man rotation to open the season, in large part because that could create too much down time for some starters with early-season off days on the schedule.
“We’ll make these decisions as we get going,” he said. “If we have a long stretch between off days, maybe there’s an opportunity to give a guy a start in that, kind of, sixth spot. Maybe there’s an opportunity to piggyback guys depending on how we want to handle this.
“It’s a long season, and to say today on February 25 what we think we’re going to do vs. what is actually going to happen — it could be so different.”
Obviously, several pitchers beyond whoever makes the opening five-man rotation will be in a regular mix for starts and/or multiple-inning piggyback assignments.
What could that mean for how many wind up with 30 starts — even the typically efficient Hendricks — after such a short season?
“These guys train to get 33, 34 starts in,” Hottovy said. “So they’re going to really want to do that. At some point we can have all these thoughts on, ‘this guy’s only going to get 28 starts, this guy’s going to get 25 starts.’ But in the end, the communication is the biggest thing, and how a guy feels. If he needs an extra day, we’re going to build in those extra days.”
The trend across the game in recent years as gone in the direction of using off days on the schedule to create extra rest for rotation regulars rather than skip fifth starters. So the baseline to use a sort of “taxi squad” of starters beyond the first five to drop into heavy parts of the schedule to add more of those scenarios already exists.
Hottovy said staying on top of the communication with his starters as well as what the advanced pitching technology is telling the team about possible fatigue will all go into decisions that are made as the season progresses.
“If that means Kyle Hendricks or Arrieta or these guys go the whole year and hit all 30 starts, then they do,” Hottovy said. “But every step of the way we’re just going to make the best decision we can, for them, for the team and for their health.
“We need to make sure we’re peaking at the right time, especially late in the season.”