Kyle Hendricks went from an underdog who essentially replaced bigger names to becoming arguably the best No. 2-3 pitcher in baseball, then he fell back to underdog status. Acquired from the Rangers as part of the Ryan Dempster trade in 2012, Hendricks was named the Cubs’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2013 and then debuted the following season after Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel were traded to Oakland.
Kinda ironic that the A’s also traded for Jon Lester, who then joined the Cubs in 2015.
The Greg Maddux comparisons came immediately for Hendricks because he got batters out despite elite velocity, but it took a few years for him to convince a not-insignificant group of doubters. It didn’t help that The Professor was pitching behind Lester and Jake Arrieta, both of whom joined the Cubs around the same time and had a few decent performances here and there.
From his debut through the 2017 season, Hendricks’ 2.95 ERA ranks ninth among qualified starters. Jacob deGrom, who first appeared with the Mets in 2014, is just behind Hendricks with an aggregate 2.98 ERA. The numbers fell off a bit after that for Hendricks and his ERA caught up with the expected numbers over the next two seasons. The shortened 2020 campaign was an outlier, perhaps because he was able to empty the tank a bit, then came the pitfall.
The big home run numbers and an ERA within kissing distance of 5.00 would have been bad enough, but news of a significant shoulder injury had even the most optimistic supporters questioning the wisdom of Hendricks’ return. Even if he was able to make it back sans surgery, which felt either risky or reckless depending on your POV, there was understandable doubt as to whether he could earn a spot even at the back end of a meh rotation.
Fast forward to the present day and Hendricks has not only earned a spot, he’s making it look like a no-brainer for the Cubs to pick up his $16.5 million option for next season. Patrick Mooney has a lot more on the specifics of the comeback and what went into it from various angles, but suffice to say Hendricks is almost certain to return for at least one more season. It’s possible the Cubs could work with him on an extension that increases his overall guarantee while reducing his AAV over a two-year period.
That could help to offset the additional $2 million Drew Smyly is likely to earn in 2024 after having already triggered $1.25 million in escalators with just 7.1 more innings needed for another $750K. Regardless of how long he’s around, Hendricks provides a great deal of intrinsic value even when he’s not on the mound. The Cubs are making a transition from an organization that had no clue about how to develop young pitchers to one that’s got arms coming out its ears, making a steadying veteran presence that much more important.
Sahadev Sharma has an excellent look at the changes in the Cubs’ pitching development over the last few years, so go check that out for the nitty-gritty. Something that really stood out to me, perhaps because it’s a line of demarcation we’ve examined several times already, is how things shifted after 2019. Sharma notes that pitchers drafted or signed as international free agents Cubs who debuted from 2013-19 logged a total of 178.1 innings for the big-league club.
The leader among that group was Dillon Maples at 54.2 innings.
Using those same parameters but moving the debut to 2021 or later in order to give them at least one year with the new pitching infrastructure, homegrown Cubs have tallied 372.1 innings this season alone. And that total does not include either Adbert Alzolay (debuted in ’19) or Daniel Palencia (acquired in ’21), who have combined for 85 innings. Rather than further steal any thunder from Sharma’s piece, I want to look again at what changed during that ’19 season.
As easy as it is to direct blame at former senior VP of player development Jason McLeod, he did at least recognize the need for significant change. Of course, that’s like realizing you should have buckled your seatbelt just before you rear-end the car in front of you going 65 mph on the highway. Given the Cubs’ situation at the time, perhaps I should have chosen a lower speed.
Cubs Insider looked at the Cubs’ abject lack of velocity development and how it contributed to their inability to produce homegrown arms for the big club, then asked the farm boss to address it.
“We have to re-evaluate what we’re doing because it hasn’t been working,” McLeod said in January of ’19. “So it’s really just that, looking at ourselves and what are some of the things we can do to change it up. Obviously, you’re looking at what other teams are doing too, teams that have been increasing velocity or increasing swings and misses, and you look at all of that information and try to see what they’ve been doing.”
A little over four years later, the Cubs are considered among the best organizations in baseball when it comes to improving velocity and stuff. They’ve got a little ways to go when it comes to injury prevention and walk rates, but that may be a matter of the pendulum swinging back in the other direction. To borrow a phrase from Deven Morgan, Driveline’s director of youth baseball, the Cubs are focused on skills that scale as they work to make their pitchers more athletic and explosive.
Sculptors don’t start working a block of marble with their smallest tools and fine-grit polishing cloth, they take care of the biggest chunks first and then set about creating detail. The old development regime was trying to find nearly finished products that they thought would stay healthy and eat innings, only to realize they were being far too conservative. Now they’re looking for high ceilings and big tools, hoping to refine their rough edges in the system.
We’ve already seen massive improvements in their pitching development as a result of these changes, and this season is only the beginning. Continuing to promote high-end young pitchers will put the Cubs in a much better position to compete by allowing them to spend more on areas of need in free agency. Fingers crossed.