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All eyes now on Kyle Hendricks as low-maintenance ace leads Cubs’ rotation in 2021

With Jon Lester and Yu Darvish now gone, Kyle Hendricks takes his place at the top of the Cubs’ rotation as their No. 1 starter.

Kyle Hendricks takes his place at the top of the Cubs’ rotation as their No. 1 starter.
Kyle Hendricks takes his place at the top of the Cubs’ rotation as their No. 1 starter.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

MESA, Ariz. — It has been a fascinating seven-year journey in Chicago for Kyle Hendricks, who began his career as the player included with Christian Villanueva in the 2012 trade that sent Ryan Dempster to the Rangers.

Over that time, Hendricks has gone from being relatively unknown to becoming a mainstay in the Cubs’ rotation, including a third-place finish in 2016 National League Cy Young Award voting, a top-10 finish in 2020, and even the Opening Day nod last season.

But this season, Hendricks will be in a position he never has been in before, and as Cubs camp officially opened Wednesday, he’s now the undisputed ace of the staff.

“It’s hard to look back at all that right now. I’ve always been someone trying to work as hard as I can,” said Hendricks, who was 6-5 with a 2.88 ERA last season. “And never stop, I don’t really know where my [spot] is at the top [of the rotation]. So I just want to keep going, try and be as good as I can be. Get the most out of my career.’’

Whether it was Jon Lester or most recently Yu Darvish, the Cubs always have had a workhorse ace at the top of the rotation with Hendricks quietly being a workhorse in his own right. But Lester and Darvish are gone, so the spotlight now will be on Hendricks to be that guy.

Since debuting in 2014, Hendricks has never had an ERA above 3.95 and has continued to be a model of consistency each year he has moved up in the rotation.

“A lot of things have changed from the first day I was here with the Cubs, but it’s just exciting to see,” he said. “And every year is so different anyway. So you just kind of take what’s thrown at you and make the most of it.”

Manager David Ross has seen Hendricks as a workhorse since last season, often calling Hendricks and Darvish his co-aces. Ross doesn’t think his No. 1 guy will have any trouble getting comfortable in his new role.

“I think the great thing about Kyle is he was around Jake [Arrieta] in his prime and around Jon Lester [during] the championship run and I [witnessed his growth] from being around those guys,” Ross said. “So a lot of the qualities that will be missing in Jon, and we were missing from Jake that we get back, Kyle has taken on a lot of that.”

Hendricks’ record of consistency is well-documented, but what may serve as big help for this year’s team will be what he represents for young pitchers. As a player who went from an unknown to Cy Young candidate, Hendricks’ rise over the last seven years serves as a reminder that performance is still more important than names.

Cubs pitchers will have several opportunities this season and the groundwork that Hendricks has helped lay provides a viable path to cracking the 26-man roster.

“I think the great thing about baseball is you do see players go, especially as a fan, you fall in love with players,” Ross said. “But there’s also opportunity in the absence of great players that move on. There’s opportunity for the next household name, the next guy up, the next guy that’s going to put his stamp on the Cubs and organization and winning. I don’t know who that guy is. We have ideas of who those great players could be, but they have to go out and prove it.”

“I’m really excited to just compete with these guys and get to work,” Hendricks said. “The pitchability that we bring this year is unbelievable.”