Long before the season ended, the Cubs began discussing names of free agent pitchers they might be able to add to a rotation mix that put together one of the more impressive second halves in the majors this year.
Now almost a month since the season ended, the biggest name to consider in that calculus might be the same as it was then: Kyle Hendricks.
The Cubs are confident in a healthy, returning core that starts with Marcus Stroman, Justin Steele and maybe even 2022 rookie Hayden Wesneski.
Less certain is the status of Hendricks, the three-time Opening Day starter, who had his throwing program pushed back again since the end of the season, into next month, and still hasn’t begun playing catch since being shut down midseason with a capsular tear in his shoulder.
“The Kyle one for me is huge,” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. “He’s an extremely important piece.”
The Cubs say Hendricks continues to progress, feels “better” and that he remains on schedule for a potential on-time, healthy start to the spring. But they can’t count on a reliable timeline until he starts throwing. And capsular injuries can be tricky, even those that don't require surgery.
When asked a few days after the season ended how Hendricks’ progress might impact the Cubs’ offseason pitching plans, team president Jed Hoyer, he focused more on the hope and optimism that Hendricks will return and play a big role for the 2023 Cubs — ignoring how potentially massive the resulting hole might be for a rotation that already needs significant addition(s) if he doesn’t.
“I know talking to him he has extensive goals this offseason about not only trying to get back to where he was, but also to continue to try to get better,” Hoyer said.
“I have all the confidence in the world that he’ll do everything he can to be the pitcher he has been for us since 2014,” he added, “but obviously there is a level of uncertainty with anyone that misses the second half of the season.”
The pitcher Hendricks has been for the Cubs since 2014 obviously means a career ERA that even with his 2021-22 struggles is 3.46, as well as big-game performances underscored by an even better postseason ERA (3.12).
But as the Cubs make their plans for 2023, the most important part of Hendricks’ track record is the 185 innings he averaged in five of his six full seasons in the majors before this year.
With Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester both exceeding 200 innings in 2015, Hendricks may not have been considered a workhorse during that first full season in the big leagues.
But these days?
Only 27 pitchers in the majors reached 180 innings in 2022 (eight getting 200). Twelve teams — including the Cubs — didn’t have even one pitcher with 180.
As recently as 10 years earlier, 31 pitchers recorded 200 or more.
So when the Cubs start looking at piecing together a rotation and start eyeing what Hottovy said was an 850-900-inning benchmark worthy of a contender, that modern-day 180-inning workhorse the Cubs have recuperating and already under contract becomes a “huge” part of the math.
“We can’t assume a Keegan [Thompson], a Steele, a Wesneski, a [Caleb] Kilian — all these guys — are going to throw 180 innings,” Hottovy said of the Cubs’ young starter candidates.
“We know Stro’s going to be locked in [with] his innings,” he added. “So having guys that are all in that 180-inning [range] is crucial. I think that’s what Kyle brings more than anything. And obviously quality innings: You’re getting 180 innings from a guy who’s pitched really, really well.”
Not to mention when it has counted most — such as the 2016 pennant clincher against Clayton Kershaw’s Dodgers and Game 7 of the World Series in Cleveland.
“Big games,” Hottovy said. “He’s extremely important for us.”
Even with the latest decision to push back Hendricks’ throwing program, the Cubs say Hendricks’ health is progressing “about how we expected.”
The way Hottovy explained it as the Cubs headed into the offseason, the Cubs believe mechanics adjustments once Hendricks starts throwing again can keep the shoulder healthy and allow him to be effective and consistent again.
“As long as there’s nothing structurally wrong, then a lot of the times it could be postural,” said Hottovy, a former big-league pitcher, describing differences in deliveries that distribute various levels of force across the chest and shoulder areas.
“There’s ways where you can just rebalance the shoulder,” he said, “where we work on the right things and kid of sync everything back up; that can clean that up too.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean drastic changes from things Hendricks has done throughout his career, especially for a pitcher who regularly works on mechanics and has made adjustments over the years, Hottovy said.
So when will the Cubs know what they can count on from him in 2023 — and how much might that impact how much they feel they have to add this winter?
“We should have a good indication once he starts playing catch where things are,” Hottovy said.
“At this point, everything is pointing in the right direction. We have to assume he’s going to have a good offseason and be ready to go,” he added. “I don’t think that keeps us away from doing what we feel like we need to do.”
But how much they need to do by the time Hendricks starts throwing again from a mound remains in play until he can answer the club’s hope and optimism.