the Cubs woke up Wednesday to the brisk, sunny weather in Chicago with a 2.5 percent chance to make the playoffs, according to FanGraphs. The Baseball Prospectus system produced a slightly more optimistic projection, setting their playoff odds at 3.4 percent. To be honest, both percentages sound kind of high, but it’s essentially zero without Kyle Hendricks being The Professor. And then so many other things still have to go right just for the major-league team to make the buy-or-sell decision at the trade deadline a hard one for Jed Hoyer’s front office.
It’s still early in the season. There’s a softer spot in the schedule this month with 14 straight games against the Diamondbacks, Pirates and networks between May 13 and May 26. Wade Miley — a 5.8-WAR pitcher last season, per Baseball-Reference, who’s on the injured list with left elbow inflammation — is supposed to begin his minor-league rehab assignment Thursday with Triple-A Iowa. That’s not really a plan, though, saying you never know, weird things happen in baseball, and hoping for players to get healthy when so many parts of the roster are uncertain.
There were two takeaways from the sell-off at last year’s trade deadline: Cubs officials insisted this reset would not resemble the beginning of Theo Epstein’s rebuild a decade ago. And while the Cubs suddenly lost so much star power from their lineup by trading Anthony Rizzo, Chris Bryant and Javier Baeztheir starting pitchers were largely responsible for the 11- and 12-game losing streaks before and after the July 30 deadline, so the rotation would be a top offseason priority.
This was supposed to be different than the Dale Sveum/Rick Renteria era, but the 2022 Cubs are now 9-15 and 7 1/2 games out of first place after Wednesday night’s 4-3 loss to the White Sox at Wrigley Field. For comparison:
• The 2012 Cubs ended April with an 8-15 record — 6 1/2 games out of first place — and finished with the 101 losses that put the organization in position to draft Bryant with the No. 2 pick the following year.
• The 2013 Cubs ended April with a 10-16 record — 5 games out of first place — and finished with the 96 losses that put the organization in position to draft Kyle Schwarber with the No. 4 pick the following year.
• The 2014 Cubs ended April with a 9-17 record and a 10-game deficit in the division but eventually saw several individual breakthroughs and created a sense of momentum that carried into the Joe Maddon years. That’s probably a realistic best-case scenario at this point for manager David Ross and his coaching staff and the rest of Hoyer’s baseball operations department.
Hendricks symbolized that turnaround as an unheralded prospect the Cubs acquired from the rangers in the Ryan Dempster deal at the 2012 trade deadline; 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 Game 7 starter in the 2016 World Series.
The baseball industry has clearly shifted across the last 10 years in terms of bullpen strategies, offensive philosophies, technological advancements, game-planning resources and rule changes. But right now, do you think this season’s rotation will outperform the 2012 group listed below? Even if you trust in Marcus Stroman’s long, successful 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 — it’s probably at best a toss-up at this early stage of the season.
• Dempster (2.25 ERA in 16 starts)
• Samardzija (3.81 ERA in 28 starts)
• Paul Maholm (3.74 ERA in 120-plus 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 envision any dramatic improvements in the team’s performance, at which point Hoyer’s priorities around the trade deadline will be obvious.
Hendricks battled through Wednesday’s start in front of a crosstown crowd of 36,755, keeping his team in the game after making two mistakes against an aggressive White Sox lineup. Joseph Abreu hammered Hendricks’ eighth pitch of the game 364 feet into the basket above the brick wall in left field. Leury Garcia launched another solo home run 408 feet into the basket in center field in the third inning. Otherwise, Hendricks found the positives in his ability for him to create good angles with his fastball, work up from the bottom of the strike zone, incorporate his curveball and generate weak contact.
It really is a game of inches for a precise pitcher who operates without much room for error. Gavin Sheets hit a two-out, game-tying RBI single through the left side of the infield in the fourth inning, finding 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 couldn’t make the diving catch on the ball that A. J. Pollock popped into shallow left field. It dropped to the grass for a go-ahead single and Hendricks walked off the mound with the White Sox leading 4-3.
“That’s executing pitches and getting what I want,” Hendricks said. “That’s just baseball. Can’t control the result. I just got to keep making pitches like that and I’ll be where I need to be.”
The Cubs now have only three quality starts through 24 games, a statistic that reflects the compressed spring training after Major League Baseball’s lockout as well as some underperformance and health concerns. Hendricks is traditionally a pitcher who starts slower, eventually locks in his mechanics and finds a good rhythm over the course of the season. That’s why he received Cy Young Award votes in 2016 and 2020 and posted a 3.12 ERA in 12 playoff games.
There are bigger things the Cubs have to worry about, but Hendricks didn’t find that level last year, when he allowed 200 hits in 181 innings and finished with a 4.77 ERA. He’s still searching for it this season (1-3, 5.64 ERA), going from a great start on Opening Day to a bad start against the Pirates to an OK start against the rays to seven shutout innings in a 21-0 victory at Wrigley Field to last weekend’s 11-1 loss in Milwaukee. He needs to find it or else this will definitely be a long season on the North Side.
“Just got to keep on going,” Hendricks said. “It’s just baseball sometimes. You just got to stick with the process and the results will even out, but it’s a frustrating feeling, for sure, when the results are not going your way.”
(Photo: Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images)