The Cubs woke up to bright, sunny Chicago weather Wednesday with a 2.5 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to FanGraphs. The baseball prospectus system was a little more optimistic, putting its playoff odds at 3.4 percent. Both percentages sound pretty high to be honest, but it’s essentially zero without Kyle Hendricks being the professor. And then so many other things have to be right just for the major league team to make the buy-or-sell decision at the close for Jed Hoyer’s front office difficult.
It’s still early in the season. There is a softer point in the schedule this month with 14 straight games against the Diamondbacks, Pirates and Reds between May 13th and 26th. Wade Miley — a 5.8 WAR pitcher last season, per baseball reference, who is on the injured list with left elbow infection — is scheduled to begin his minor league rehab assignment at Triple-A Iowa Thursday. That’s not really a plan, though, as they say you never know, strange things happen in baseball and there’s hope that players will heal when so many parts of the roster are uncertain.
There were two takeaways from last year’s close of trade: Cubs officials insisted this reset would not resemble how Theo Epstein’s rebuild began a decade ago. And while the Cubs suddenly shed so much star power from their lineup by trading Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Javier Báez, their starting pitchers were largely to blame for the 11- and 12-game losing streak before and after the July 30 deadline, according to the Rotation would be a top priority off-season.
This should be different from the Dale Sveum/Rick Renteria era, but the 2022 Cubs are now 9-15 and 7 1/2 games from first place after beating the White Sox 4-3 at Wrigley Field on Wednesday night had lost. For comparison:
• The 2012 Cubs finished April with a record 8:15 – 6 1/2 games behind first place – and finished with 101 losses that put the organization in a position to pick Bryant as the No. 2 pick the following year.
• The 2013 Cubs finished April with a 10-16 record – 5 games behind first place – and finished with 96 losses that enabled the organization to pick Kyle Schwarber as the No. 4 pick the following year.
• The 2014 Cubs finished April with a 9-17 record and a 10-game divisional deficit, but eventually enjoyed several individual breakthroughs and created a sense of momentum that carried through into Joe Maddon’s years. That’s probably a realistic best-case scenario for manager David Ross and his coaching staff and the rest of Hoyer’s baseball department at this point.
Hendricks symbolized this turnaround as an unheralded prospect the Cubs acquired from Rangers in the 2012 close Ryan Dempster deal. the organization’s 2013 Minor League Pitcher of the Year; a midseason replacement in 2014 after the Cubs traded Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel; and the starter of Game 7 in the 2016 World Series.
The baseball industry has changed significantly over the past 10 years in terms of bullpen strategies, offensive philosophies, advances in technology, game planning resources, and rule changes. But now do you think this season’s rotation will top the 2012 group below? Even if you trust Marcus Stroman’s long, winning track record more than his first five starts with the Cubs (1-3, 5.13 ERA) — and believe Miley’s presence will help stabilize the team — this is probably one at best Litter early in the season.
• Dempster (2.25 ERA in 16 starts)
• Samardtsia (3.81 ERA in 28 starts)
• Paul Maholm (3.74 ERA in 120+ innings)
• Matt Garza (3.91 ERA in 18 starts)
• Travis Wood (4.27 ERA in 26 starts)
If the Cubs don’t start getting better results from their rotation soon, it’s impossible to imagine dramatic improvements in the team’s performance and at that point Hoyer’s priorities around the trade deadline will be apparent.
Hendricks fought his way through Wednesday’s start in front of a crowd of 36,755 at Crosstown, keeping his team in the game after making two errors against an aggressive White Sox lineup. Jose Abreu hammered Hendrick’s eighth throw of the game 364 feet into the basket over the brick wall in left field. Leury García started another solo home run 408 feet to the basket in midfield in the third inning. Otherwise, Hendricks found the positive in his ability to create good angles with his fastball, work up from the bottom of the hitting zone, incorporate his curveball, and create weak contact.
It’s really an inch game for a precise thrower who works without much room for error. Gavin Sheets hit a double RBI singles play through the left side of the infield in the fourth inning and found the open space created by a defensive shift. Hendricks threw his 73rd and final pitch with two outs in the sixth inning when Cubs second baseman Nick Madrigal failed to catch the ball that AJ Pollock slammed into shallow left field. It fell to the grass for a go-ahead single and Hendricks left the mound with the White Sox leading 4-3.
“That means throwing pitches and getting what I want,” Hendricks said. “It’s just baseball. Can’t control the result. I just have to keep making pitches like this and I’ll be where I need to be.”
The Cubs now have just three good starts in 24 games, a stat that reflects compressed spring training following Major League Baseball’s lockout as well as some underperforming and health concerns. Hendricks is traditionally a pitcher who starts slower, eventually locks in his mechanics, and finds a good rhythm as the season progresses. Because of this, he earned Cy Young Award votes in 2016 and 2020 and posted a 3.12 ERA in 12 playoff games.
There are bigger things for the Cubs to worry about, but Hendricks didn’t find that level last year when he conceded 200 hits in 181 innings and finished with a 4.77 ERA. He’s still looking for it this season (1-3, 5.64 ERA), from a great start on opening day to a poor start against the Pirates to a good start against the Rays and seven shutout innings on a 21- 0 win at Wrigley Field after losing 1-1 in Milwaukee last weekend. He has to find it or it’s definitely going to be a long season on the North Side.
“I just have to keep going,” Hendricks said. “Sometimes it’s just baseball. You just have to stick to the process and the results will even out, but it’s definitely a frustrating feeling when the results don’t go in the right direction.”
(Photo: Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images)