MESA, Ariz. – When Kyle Hendricks was drafted in the eighth round out of Dartmouth in 2011 he joined a Texas Rangers organization coming off its first World Series appearance and on its way to another that season.
Barely a year later he was pitching well at advanced-A Myrtle Beach, climbing the organizational ladder for a Rangers team headed to a third consecutive playoff appearance – when the call came that he was headed to a rebuilding Cubs organization in a trade for Ryan Dempster.
Talk about flipping the script.
But look at the right-hander now.
At ease in a big-league clubhouse that includes five guys with World Series rings who weren’t here a year ago, Hendricks is in the middle of the Cubs’ big plans this year – suddenly in the middle of a rotation expected to carry a big load for a team with playoff hopes.
“When I was traded over here, the mindset was completely different than it is now,” Hendricks said Tuesday – the day after manager Joe Maddon confirmed Hendricks is one of four starters locked into the rotation as the Cactus League season opens this week.
“Just to see that transformation, and them really buying into the winning ways – you want to be part of a team that’s going to win, obviously, no matter where you are. It’s just exciting to see that, and hopefully I can be a part of that.”
If the Cubs are going to end their string of five consecutive fifth-place finishes – much less compete in the National League Central this year – Hendricks figures to play a big role. Even if he is the relative kid in a starting group that also includes, so far, Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta and Jason Hammel.
“He’s smart,” manager Joe Maddon said of his first impressions of Hendricks the first two weeks of camp. “He’s very confident. That was my first read on him.
“And he’s a pitcher. He’s not out there just throwing. He’s not going to try to blow anybody away. But he’s beyond finesse. Maybe not necessarily power, but he’s whatever that range [in between] would be.”
A good breaking ball and excellent changeup, along with uncommon command and ability to pitch to a game plan, have more than made up for the below average velocity on Hendricks’ fastball.
After earning Cubs minor league pitcher of the year honors in 2013, Hendricks started off strong at AAA Iowa in 2014, earned a big-league debut on July 10, returned to the Cubs rotation for good on July 22 – and then actually performed better than he had in the minors.
Hendricks, 25, said the video and scouting resources at the big-league level play into maybe his biggest strength: game preparation, which was mostly on him in the minors.
“At the minor-league level, you have to make your own scouting report, and the video’s very limited,” he said. “So at the big-league level, yeah, all the video you could ever imagine is available to you. You have advanced scouts working for the team. You’ve got guys on the coaching staff putting together scouting reports for you.”
It made the big-league process seem almost easier by comparison. “A hundred percent,” he said.
“He’s a technician,” Maddon said.
After going 10-5 with a 3.59 ERA in 17 starts at Iowa, Hendricks was 7-2 with a 2.46 ERA in 13 for the Cubs and earned Rookie of the Year votes.
Now it’s about backing that up. And pushing past that career-high 183 innings he pitched last year to get to 200. And winning.
“It’s a longer season,” he said as he prepares for his first spring start on Monday. “And facing teams three or four times – five times – during the year is going to be different. Especially having big-league hitters facing you that many times during a year. Hopefully I can make the adjustments quicker than the hitters.”
Spring coach Rick Sutcliffe, who’s especially high on Hendricks, as well as veterans like Jon Lester who have been added to the clubhouse will help, Hendricks said.
And then comes the real next step.
“It’s hard to say because there always are a lot of questions, but there’s so much talent here and so many guys that just know how to play the game,” he said. “I think the playoffs are expected from everyone in here. And Joe’s talked about it, about learning how to make the playoffs and how to play in the playoffs – that’s something like a different animal in itself almost.
“Hopefully as a group we can make it this year and learn how to do it, and then Joe’s goal is to become a playoff contender for many year to come.
“Taking that first step though and making it this year is going to be big.”