Rotation battle in focus: Keegan Thompson to bullpen, Kyle Hendricks schedules next rehab step

Hendricks’ delay created an opening in the rotation.

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Right-hander Keegan Thompson grabs his glove to head over to throw a bullpen Wednesday at Cubs Spring Training in Mesa, AZ.

Right-hander Keegan Thompson grabs his glove to head over to throw a bullpen Wednesday at Cubs Spring Training in Mesa, AZ.

John Antonoff/Sun-Times

MESA, Ariz. — The highly anticipated next step of Kyle Hendricks’ throwing -program is less than a week away, he -revealed Saturday. He is scheduled to throw off a mound on Friday.

“It’s been a long time,” Hendricks said. “But just this fun part of getting into the next phase, getting through this long-toss program, still feeling good, taking advantage of all of it, and being able to look forward to touching the mound now, very excited for that stuff.”

It only will be a “touch-and-feel” bullpen session, with a light workload. But it’s a significant checkpoint in Hendricks’ progression. Last year, after landing on the injured list with a capsular tear in his right shoulder, he set and reset his target to begin throwing again. He didn’t end up starting his throwing program until Dec. 1, focussing on mechanical adjustments in the interim.

Once he was progressing in his throwing program, he set a new target — throwing off a mound by March 1. He’s on track to meet that deadline.

Hendricks said he’s about a month behind his usual ramp-up; normally he’d start throwing bullpens in January. The pace of his buildup will determine his timeline to return.

“We don’t want to waste the time we’ve put in by rushing now,” Hendricks said. “So, there’s a happy middle ground with how much I’m going to throw going forward, too.”

He expects his first couple bullpens will be light sessions, building up to a “real” bullpen his third or fourth time. Hendricks didn’t rule out a short appearance late in spring training, if his buildup goes to plan, but throwing a live batting practice session or an inning on the back fields might make more sense.

“I have no doubt about Kyle,” said manager David Ross, who also played with Hendricks. “He’s one of those guys that I don’t have to talk to a whole lot. I know he’s working hard. I know he doesn’t need much. He’s got his routine. He knows what he wants to do. And I check in with him probably the least amount of anybody on the team because I know he’s right where he needs to be.”

Hendricks’ delay creates an opening in the rotation. Ross said Hayden Wesneski, Adrian Sampson, Javier Assad and several non-roster invitees will be competing for the fifth rotation spot.

Right-hander Keegan Thompson, however, is penciled into the bullpen.

“And he knows that,” Ross said.

Thompson posted an impressive 1.47 ERA as a reliever last season, often throwing multiple innings and in high-leverage situations. But he also found a rhythm as a starter. He hit an early rough patch, but after throwing back-to-back duds against the Orioles and Yankees, he recorded a 2.52 ERA in his next seven starts.

He spent a month on the injured list late in the year with low back tightness and general fatigue. He returned to throw four games out of the bullpen in the last weeks of the season.

Ross included Adbert Alzolay in the same category as Thompson, focussed on a multi-inning bullpen role rather than being in the opening day starting mix. That was a role -Alzolay embraced late last year after returning from a strained right lat.

“You get two guys down there that everyone likes, that are good teammates first, and that have worked hard and that do the right things,” bullpen coach Chris Young said in a conversation with the Sun-Times. “And -everyone else likes them down there because there’s times they’ll take down three innings a night and save a couple of other guys some bullets. It’s exciting.”

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