Nutty ‘Professor’? Kyle Hendricks says Cubs rotation is good enough to win as is

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Kyle Hendricks delivers a pitch against the Nationals in Game 1 of the 2017 NLCS. (Photo by Pool/Getty Images)

Yu Darvish or Jake Arrieta? Jake Arrieta or Yu Darvish? It has to be one or the other. It better not be neither.

If the Cubs don’t complete their 2018 rotation with a top-tier star, they can forget about contending for the World Series. They might as well begin preparing their NL Central concession speech while they’re at it.

And what about the rest of us, in that case? Do we curl into the fetal position for the next eight months? Get back in touch with our pre-2015 selves? Is our baseball joy simply dispersed like dandelion seeds in an angry wind?

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We might as well start dealing with this cold, hard reality: It’s re-sign Arrieta or bring Darvish into the fold — or wait ’til next year.

Or is it?

“No, no. I don’t see it that way at all,” Kyle Hendricks said. “With the pieces that we have right now, if we were to go into spring training like this, all the answers would lie within the current rotation.”

Is Hendricks for real? Has “the Professor” gone nutty?

At this time, only one rotation mate — Jon Lester — remains from the 2016 World Series championship team. Chris Bosio, the pitching coach who helped the 28-year-old Hendricks blossom into a Game 1 playoff starter, is gone. The Cubs are looking at Lester, Hendricks, Jose Quintana, newcomer Tyler Chatwood and Mike Montgomery, in whatever order. Hardly a subpar fivesome, but not one that has rival players and managers waking up in cold sweats.

Yet Hendricks is undeterred. He raves about Lester’s experience and Quintana’s consistency. He’s a big believer in Chatwood, with whom he played summer ball as a high schooler in Southern California, as both a physical talent and a student of the game. And he continues to see starter/reliever Montgomery as a pitcher with the goods to “pull a Hendricks” — in other words, to take a sudden, dramatic leap forward as Hendricks did in 2016.

Most of all, there’s this: The way Hendricks sees it, the biggest addition to the Cubs’ rotation in 2018 might come via his own improvement. After finishing third in NL Cy Young voting two seasons ago, Hendricks won only seven games and pitched only 139.2 innings in a ’17 campaign that was a blend of injury and hard luck. Now? He has 200 innings — that’s goal No. 1 — and 20 victories on his mind. Each would be a career first.

“For sure, 200 innings is the one I want to get to — 100 percent,” he said. “And 20 wins, too. Those are the two that I’d love to get to.”

Cold, hard reality, meet stone-cold confidence.

And we have to take Hendricks’ talk seriously, don’t we? No pitcher is smarter. Few are as self-possessed. Hendricks snuck into the rotation after starters Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel were traded midway through the 2014 season, and all he has done since is flummox hitters and open eyes.

At his very best, Hendricks has evoked comparisons to Greg Maddux. Talk about nutty, right? Maddux is merely a Hall of Famer and all.

“I’ve been trying to prove that I’m a top pitcher my whole life,” he said. “That’s kind of just always been my M.O. And it’s fine with me. I’ve always flown under the radar with no expectations, really. At this time, I just have to keep proving myself. It puts a little more pressure on you, but it gives you a little more gratification at the end.”

Take a spin through Hendricks’ sneaky-good stats and you have to be at least somewhat heartened. He’s 38-22 with a 2.94 ERA in his big-league career, all with the Cubs. He already has pitched 50 postseason innings, with a 2.88 ERA. He has outpitched Corey Kluber, Clayton Kershaw and Stephen Strasburg head-to-head in the playoffs.

It all smacks suspiciously of a guy who just might be capable of leading a rotation, even a good one. Just to be on the safe side, can the Cubs make that Arrieta-or-Darvish thing happen anyway?

Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.


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