Kyle Hendricks won’t be ready for Opening Day 2023, but he’s still hoping to do enough this season to merit a spot with the Cubs in 2024. That would mean the team has either picked up his $16 million club option for next season, which would be $2 million more than any of the three previous years, or that he’s worked out an extension of some sort. Either of those outcomes hinges on his offseason throwing program getting him back to his pre-2021 form.
Hendricks explained during Cubs Convention that he began throwing again at the start of December following a layoff of roughly five months to improve the health of his right shoulder. Capsular tears apparently can’t fully heal without surgery, but going under the knife would mean missing the ’24 season entirely and then hitting free agency in the wake of a lost season following the two worst campaigns of his career.
When you look at it that way, the only real option Hendricks had was to revamp his workout routine and his delivery. Getting stronger has obvious benefits and having a shorter arm stroke will reduce stress on the joint while also making him a little more explosive. That should pay off in bigger velo numbers, ideally increasing the disparity between his fastball and changeup, plus it may help him improve his location and movement.
“My command, the action of my pitches, it all fed off of my arm path and how my mechanics worked,” Hendricks told Patrick Mooney of The Athletic. “A lot of the deception came from that, too. But, obviously, if that’s not going to be sustainable — which it wasn’t — then that’s when you kind of step back and see, ‘OK, now let’s make some changes.’”
You’re not alone if you read all this and find yourself growing even more concerned about Hendricks’ outlook than you were already, but this isn’t the first time a Cubs pitcher has opted against surgery. Jon Lester pitched for years with a “grenade” in his left elbow after an ultrasound revealed that he had a bone chip floating around in there prior to his franchise-altering deal with the Cubs. I’d say that ended up working out pretty well.
Lester was almost exactly two years younger at that time than Hendricks is now, however, and he was coming off of one of the best seasons of his career. Hendricks essentially has to prove himself all over again, if not to the Cubs than to 29 other potential employers.
“The bottom line is I just want to give quality (innings),” Hendricks told Mooney. “I just want to get healthy and go in and (contribute). It helps so much with my focus being on the guys we got, the new faces on the team. I just want to be out there for my guys and be consistent every fifth day. By doing that, if I’m able to be who I am, then I think things will end up taking care of themselves after the season.
“Obviously, the goal would be to stay here. I’ve loved everything about it. I would love to ride it out as long as I possibly can.”
I’d love to say I feel confident in Hendricks’ ability to come back strong in April and be at least good enough to anchor the back end of the rotation, it’s just that shoulder issues are so tricky. The way the Cubs have constructed the rotation should at least help because they have at least five other competent starters and two or three excellent multi-inning relievers to carry more of the burden.
Hendricks isn’t expected to be a workhorse even with vintage health and performance, so that may allow him to be a little more free mentally. He doesn’t need to rush anything or press to fill the role of ace, and those reduced expectations might be almost as important as anything he’s working out in Mesa right now. To some extent, reinventing himself probably holds a lot of appeal for a veteran who will be in his 10th season with the Cubs.
Having his option picked up might be a stretch, but I won’t be completely surprised if Hendricks winds up sticking around beyond this season. For now, I’m going to maintain a good bit of cautious optimism that the old dog can indeed learn a few new tricks. Or maybe it’s that the old Professor can come up with a riveting new lecture. Feel free to pick the trite analogy that works best for you.