David Ross would make a strong statement by naming Kyle Hendricks the Cubs’ Opening Day starter
Giving the assignment to Jon Lester, who had a 4.46 ERA last season, would announce that it’s business as usual on the North Side.
Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester and Yu Darvish have spent the last few weeks complimenting each other to within an inch of their lives.
The topic has been who will be the Cubs’ Opening Day starter, and each pitcher has publicly made a case for the other two. It has been very harmonious. If Telander and I could get along like this, there’s a decent chance world peace would be realized.
That Lester is even in the conversation to be on the mound Opening Day in Milwaukee is an indication that the Cubs haven’t completely scrubbed Joe Maddon from their consciousness. Lester could be coming off a great season (2016) or a mediocre season (2017), and it didn’t matter. Maddon would pretend he was anguishing over who deserved the nod in the opener, say some nice things about Hendricks, then announce that Lester was his man. The left-hander has been the Opening Day starter four of the last five seasons. Jake Arrieta was coming off a Cy Young Award when he got the start in 2016.
This always struck me as the antithesis of general manager Theo Epstein’s meritocracy, a romantic concept that hasn’t had much basis in fact on the North Side. In the end, Maddon seemed to be a sucker for the idea of rewarding a gritty veteran. Also, there might have been something about Lester that scared the bejabbers out of the manager. Perhaps it was the death stare and the camo clothing.
David Ross is the manager now. A fresh perspective, and all that. If he looks at last season’s stats, he will immediately rule out Lester. A 4.46 ERA, the fourth-highest in his 14-year career, should be a disqualifier. Hendricks led Cubs starters with a 3.46 ERA, and Darvish, having a nice bounce-back year, was second at 3.98.
That makes Hendricks the obvious choice, right? Easy there, clear thinker. The quiet one has spent his career letting his pitching do the talking. Maddon, hand cupped to his ear, could never seem to hear it. Will Ross?
Ross’ reputation as a player rose when he became Lester’s personal catcher while both were with the Red Sox and Cubs. There’s a history and a relationship there. Will that lead him to name Lester the starter in the opener? That’s my fear, especially if Ross has a Maddon-like concern that a decorated veteran would feel disrespected by an Opening Day snub.
If Lester gets the start March 26, it will be for the body of his work. Doesn’t Hendricks deserve something like that for being so good and so overlooked so often?
In six seasons with the Cubs, he has been a rock, going 63-43 with a 3.14 ERA. When Epstein came to Chicago, he added the term “sustained success’’ to our vocabulary. He was after not just an elusive World Series title, he said, but also season after season of playoff baseball. Hendricks is the epitome of that term. His ERA has been under 3.50 every year except for his second season in the majors (a 3.95 ERA in 2015). His 2.13 ERA in 2016 was the best in the majors that season. He finished third in National League Cy Young voting, just behind Lester, who finished second to the Nationals’ Max Scherzer. You know, sustained success.
Off the mound, Hendricks doesn’t make much noise, to his detriment. He’s not one to toot his own horn, if he had one, which I don’t think he does. Too loud. Attracts too much attention. That’s how he pitches, too. It always felt as if Maddon was a Doubting Thomas when it came to Hendricks. In today’s power-addicted game, it’s easy to be that way. Hendricks deals in precision, deception and subtlety. He doesn’t throw harder than 87 mph. He’s a good candidate to be ticketed for going under the speed limit.
Maddon talked a good game about Hendricks, but when it was time to made a weighty decision, his call often went against the right-hander, whether it was for an Opening Day start or for being allowed to pitch past the fifth inning of a World Series game.
It would be easy to make a case for Darvish as the Opening Day starter, and I might have this offseason in a moment or two of goodwill. Chicago treated him poorly in his first season as a Cub, an injury-plagued 2018. And now that the Astros, who beat up on Darvish in the 2017 World Series when he was with the Dodgers, have been exposed as cheaters, it’s easy to jump aboard the Yu campaign.
But Hendricks deserves a reward for his excellence and an apology for the oversights of the past. A start at Miller Park to begin the season would accomplish both. And it would be a nice way for Ross to prove that it’s not business as usual with the Cubs.