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Overlook Cubs’ Kyle Hendricks at your own risk in 2016

Kyle Hendricks

SURPRISE, Ariz. – All eyes will be on Jake Arrieta for the Cubs this year after that Cy Young season.

And everybody will certainly be watching Jon Lester, the big $155 million left-hander who’s a big part of what the Cubs want to accomplish this season.

Not to mention the key to that starting pitching depth, John Lackey, the two-time champion the Cubs stole from the Cardinals with a two-year deal to help put their staff over the top in the National League Central.

If anyone’s wondering where that leaves a guy like Kyle Hendricks, it leaves him right where he wants to be.

“There’s a lot of headlines on our team. I’m pretty far down there,” the Cubs’ fifth starter said after pitching against the Rangers on Wednesday. “That’s fine with me. I like it that way. I like focusing on myself, and if there’s not much going on, not much hype, that’s fine.

“I’m just going out there trying to do my thing and win some ballgames.”

For all the focus on his struggles and short starts during his sophomore season last year, Hendricks still managed do that better than most. The Cubs won 19 of his 32 starts last season (he went 8-7), and his 3.95 ERA and 180 innings were part of what made him the best fifth starter in the majors last year.

“By the end of the season I thought he got it together pretty well,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He eventually came out the other side. And right now he looks really good.”

Five starts into his spring, Hendricks has quietly been one of the Cubs’ most consistent pitchers – allowing just four runs in 19 innings (1.89) ERA, with 19 strikeouts and just two walks.

That strikeout rate isn’t likely to stay that high once the season gets underway and hitters start catching up to command/movement guys like him. But the success isn’t a fluke, especially with his changeup looking as good as it has with less than two weeks to go before the opener.

“Hendricks looked good. He looked really good,” said a longtime National League scout who watched Wednesday’s start. “He’s going to be all right this year.”

Hendricks, 26, doesn’t seem to need anybody to tell him that after getting his big-league feet under him for 45 starts the last two years (15-9, 3.49) – plus two trial-by-fire starts in the playoffs last year.

“You lean more about yourself every single year,” said the Dartmouth graduate who carries himself with a comfort and confidence this spring that belies his relative youth and under-the-radar place in the Cubs’ rotation.

“Coming in here just knowing how to put [mechanical adjustments] into my bullpens and throwing program better helped me find my groove a little quicker.”

Facing the team that traded him as a minor-leaguer for Ryan Dempster in 2012, Hendricks pitched four scoreless innings Wednesday until allowing a pair of two-out runs in the fifth on a run-scoring triple by Ian Desmond followed by Prince Fielder’s bloop single to left. He struck out five, including four straight over the first and second innings.

Not that it seemed to elicit any buzz, or even notice, on a day his fastball reached the upper-80s and he mixed a steady diet of 75- to 80-mph curve balls and changeups.

Those who fail to see him coming behind the bigger names in the Cubs’ rotation may do so at their own risk this season – a season Hendricks says he’s ready to start.

In fact, he said, “I’m trying to almost take these starts as if they are the season, because I’ve been somewhat of a slow starter.”

He had a 5.61 ERA in his five starts last season: 3.03 in his final six.

Whether that helps get off to the kind of start he wants when he faces the Diamondbacks in his season debut April 10, he said he takes a lot of confidence into this season, especially after getting through last year’s struggles.

“Part of that’s been Joe,” he said. “They stuck with me last year when I was struggling, and they’ve reiterated to me that they have confidence in me. So it gives me confidence in return.”