Hendricks trying to lead a Cubs team in transition

June 19th, 2022

CHICAGO -- Kyle Hendricks walked down the dugout steps and made his way along the bench. From an elevated seat, Cubs catcher Willson Contreras reached down and gave the veteran pitcher a pat on the back.

These are unfamiliar waters for Hendricks and Contreras -- two of the few remaining pieces of the core group that ended Chicago's long World Series drought. Their job descriptions now extend beyond the field, serving as veteran voices and leaders for a team in transition.

"We're still going out there and competing, giving it everything," Hendricks said after a 6-0 loss to the Braves on Sunday at Wrigley Field. "The focus is with these young guys. We just want to keep that winning environment, even if things don't go our way day in and day out."

For Hendricks right now, that means showing the younger, developing rotation arms how to handle the most inconsistent season to date of his decorated career. The right-hander allowed six runs and exited before the end of the fifth against Atlanta, which capitalized on misplaced fastballs and churned out six extra-base hits against him. That drove his ERA to 5.43 through 13 starts this season.

Hendricks is steadfastly stoic both on the mound and behind the scenes. Short, abrupt answers in a postgame interview-room session on Sunday is as far as he goes in letting his frustration manifest. He has looked like himself in short bursts this season, but has not found his usual mid-summer rhythm. Now, he will go through his between-starts routine in that same, steady manner, leading by example in his own way.

"You have a great start and you stay in that routine," Cubs manager David Ross said. "Or you have a bad start, and you stay in that routine. I think Kyle has said numerous times the example that the guys like [Jon] Lester, [Jake] Arrieta, [John] Lackey had set for him early in his career.

"Those things still stand true and I see him passing those things down and having those conversations in the food room with a lot of our young guys."

While Hendricks gets his work in over the next four days in Pittsburgh, the Cubs' banged-up rotation (Marcus Stroman, Wade Miley and Drew Smyly are all on the injured list) will feature a group of arms under development.

Top pitching prospect Caleb Kilian (acquired in the Kris Bryant trade last summer) will start on Monday, followed by Matt Swarmer (a 19th-round pick in the '16 Draft that is a developmental success story), Keegan Thompson (a multi-inning weapon in the bullpen now getting extended leash as a starter) and Justin Steele (another homegrown arm navigating through his first full MLB season).

Hendricks praised the progress made this year by Thompson and Steele, in particular. Thompson had his best career start on Friday, striking out nine and generating 18 whiffs in six shutout innings against Atlanta. Steele has posted a 1.89 ERA in his last three turns, logging 19 innings.

"It's been awesome, man," Hendricks said. "Justin and Keegan, they've been taking full advantage of their opportunity. You see they're coming into their own, building confidence and knowing they can dominate at this level."

This season -- with Hendricks, Stroman and other veterans as their guide -- those arms are being given the chance to develop in the Majors. And, as president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer emphasized earlier this week, giving the younger arms the chance to work through both success and setbacks can be valuable in the long run.

"Most guys come up and at some point are going to have some struggles," Hoyer said. "Part of this year is allowing those guys to get experience. Hopefully they can contribute to wins now, but also get the experience to build on over the course of the winter and into next year."

When Hendricks broke into the Majors in '14, the Cubs were coming out of their last rebuild and on the cusp of a string of seasons that ended with playoff games. Similarly, Stroman rose to the big leagues in ‘14 as the Blue Jays were also entering a period of real contention.

"I had to pitch well every start or I was going to be sent down," Stroman said. "So, my life was on the line each and every time. It's a little different nowadays. There's a little bit more developmental process with certain organizations, and you have to be patient.

"We're a team that I think can be great. It's just, we have a lot of inexperienced guys. They're guys that can perform, but once you get to this level, it's finding your routine, finding your flow and everything that comes in between."

Hendricks understands he is playing a role in that process.

"You saw those last two days," he said. "Man, when we pitch well and get aggressive and get after it, with the defense behind it, we can beat anybody. So, that's our focus right now -- just still winning as many ballgames as we can. I've just got to be better on that front."