It ain’t easy watching what’s happened to the Cubs roster and direction of the franchise since that pandemic-season division title. Especially from a seat in the clubhouse. Especially during that 20-hour purge last July.
“Honestly, I think it’s much easier this time around. You’re not really thinking about it as much,” Cubs veteran Kyle Hendricks said during a quiet moment in the clubhouse recently when the team was struggling through a 10-game losing streak.
“You don’t want to conjecture what could happen,” he said. “But obviously we know we’re in the same situation here. There’s a lot of names.”
Names that will go away again by the trade deadline.
Not as many as last summer maybe. Certainly not as many championship core guys.
Of course, that’s the big difference this time. Only three of those players are left.
And as the veteran pitcher who had so much success starting so many of those huge games during those five playoff seasons works now to find his way back to performing more like that pitcher, it’s almost impossible to know what’s next.
What’s next for this team that lost for the 11th time in 13 games Sunday. And for the Game 7 World Series starter who gave up all six runs in Sunday’s 6-0 loss to the Braves.
The Cubs are in full rebuild mode with Hendricks currently sharing a rotation with two second-year pitchers (Keegan Thompson, Justin Steele) and two rookies (Caleb Kilian, Matt Swarmer) as veterans Marcus Stroman, Wade Miley and Drew Smyly rehab injuries.
Hendricks, one of the best starters in the majors the first seven years of his career (3.12 ERA), has struggled since last season. But he said Sunday the shoulder issue that led to a two-week blow this month is completely behind him, and he showed flashes of vintage Hendricks between the second and fourth innings Sunday and during his return start five days earlier.
“I feel great. Shoulder feels great. Arm. Everything,” he said. “Body’s back. That’s the biggest positive [from the Atlanta loss].”
Beyond that, he embraces a mentoring role with the young starters around him — something the drew praise from his manager Sunday — and braces for the next wave of departures.
This wave’s all but assured of including the catcher who has caught more of Hendricks’ starts, by far, than anyone else, including the pennant-clincher against Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers and both World Series starts against Cleveland in 2016.
“There’s a lot of names up in the air. And Willy’s my guy, man. I love him,” Hendricks said of Willson Contreras, who’s expected to earn his third All-Star starter selection, then get traded.
“That’s been a special run.”
Hendricks, for one, figures to be more prepared for this one than he was a year ago when Anthony Rizzo, Javy Báez and then Kris Bryant were traded during a 20-hour flurry at 2021 trade deadline.
“I never played with someone like that group of guys for that amount of time,” said Hendricks, whose big-league debut came in 2014 on the day Rizzo threw down his glove and challenged the 25 occupants of the Reds dugout to a fight — a few months of baseball before Joe Maddon and Jon Lester signed up for a 2015 season that launched an era for the Cubs.
“That was a very unique situation I think for me and [Jason Heyward] and Willy, the guys that have been here,” Hendricks said, “just with the group that it was, and how long we’ve been here and what was accomplished.
“To have Rizz be the first one, and it happened at home. That was a big sign,” he added. “Him getting emotional; it just really hit home — because he was Mr. Cub. I mean, Ernie [Banks] is the guy, but he was Mr. Chicago. He was the face of the Cubs. And for that to be the first move, it just really signaled where things were headed.
“It was definitely a shock in some ways for sure.”
It’s that shock that has worn off as the Cubs head into the final six weeks of play before this year’s trade deadline.
Nine players were traded by the Cubs last July in their first deadline selloff since the 2014 Jeff Samardzija-Jason Hammel trade for Addison Russell that opened the spot in the rotation for Hendricks to debut and audition the rest of that season.
Who knows how many will go this time around? Who knows how many more years of this the fans and players will endure before team president Jed Hoyer finds the core of his “next great Cubs team”?
Even Hoyer made it clear he didn’t have answers to some of those questions when he met with media during the homestand.
Hendricks, who has another guaranteed year left on his contract after this one, probably will stay in a Cubs uniform at least into next year. His value as a stabilizer and mentor for the young pitchers suggests that much (never mind the fact his struggles limit his trade value).
The last time the team went through this kind of process, Hendricks was a big part of the answer.
Now it’s almost all questions, including: Where will he be when this team is competitive again?
“That’s a good question,” he said. “Being around for this amount of time, I’m pretty good about not thinking about those kinds of things.
“But I’ve loved every second of it,” he said. “I still love it here. They’ve treated me so well. The line of communication’s been open. They know that. They know how much I love being here.
“But whatever ends up happening, whatever route they think is best for the Chicago Cubs, that’s what they’re going to take, and that’s totally fine with me. At the end of the day, I would love to be here, obviously, but if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen; I’ll take advantage of whatever the next opportunity may be.”