Indications are that Jon Lester will be the Cubs’ opening-day starter. I’d like to report that indications were out drinking last night or that indications don’t know what they’re talking about or that indications aren’t what they used to be.
I’d really like to report that Kyle Hendricks will start the opener in Miami on March 29, but I know better. Part of this has to do with manager Joe Maddon’s habit of bowing to leathery veterans, and part of this has to do with Hendricks’ quiet nature. A manager’s life is easier when a bulldog’s jaw isn’t clamped around his ankle.
Welcome to the Kyle Hendricks Defense League. Much of this will fall on deaf Maddon ears, which often are the only kind of Maddon ears. But somebody has to send out another reminder that Hendricks deserves better.
This is hardly one of the major issues of our day. The Cubs have a very good rotation, thanks to the addition of Yu Darvish, and they figure to have one of the best teams in baseball. Hendricks likely will play a big role in whatever success the club has, no matter where he falls in the rotation.
But this is a fairness issue. The Cubs are forever telling us that their organization is a meritocracy. A player’s results are supposed to decide how much he plays and when he pitches.
Lester had a 4.33 earned-run average last season, a year after he finished second in National League Cy Young Award voting. Hendricks, who finished third in that vote after leading the league with a 2.13 ERA, followed up with a 3.03 ERA last season.
What part of “Hendricks is better’’ doesn’t Maddon understand?
To much ballyhoo, Hendricks started Game 1 of last year’s NL Division Series against the Nationals. It looked like a formal ascension, a recognition of his excellence, but it wasn’t. Maddon said Lester probably would have gotten the nod if he hadn’t recently returned from a shoulder injury. To Maddon’s credit, he let Hendricks go seven innings in that game. To Hendricks’ credit and two-hit mastery, the Cubs won 3-0.
When deciding on this year’s opening-day starter, Maddon should go back and see what Lester said when Hendricks was given that Game 1 start against the Nationals.
“I’m happy for him,” Lester said. “This is kind of that next step. Hopefully, the next step for him is to go through the whole playoffs like that and then be our opening-day starter next year. That’s a cool step. I remember back in the day when the torch was kind of passed to me to do that.”
What happened to the torch? Did Joe douse it in the dugout Gatorade dispenser?
For two seasons, Maddon regularly pulled Hendricks before the seventh inning, no matter how well the kid was performing. There was a lot of talk about Hendricks needing to go through the natural progression that all starters do, but it really came down to trust. It was hard to shake the feeling that, despite the favorable comparisons to wily Hall of Fame pitcher Greg Maddux, Hendricks would have been trusted a whole lot more if he threw 94 mph instead of 89 mph.
Despite all that, Hendricks sounds comfortable with where he’s at in his career.
“Through the years, Joe and the front office have always told me to just be myself — ‘Do you,’ ’’ he said Sunday morning. “You don’t get that in a lot of places.
“I think I’m finally just comfortable in that. Being myself, doing my routine, knowing that what I do has the ability to work. When you put the work in and see the results, it just makes you more confident.”
Maddon has a fondness for veterans. That makes him like many other managers who prefer to put their jobs and reputations in the hands of people who have a history of success. But Hendricks is 28 and heading into his fifth season. His career ERA is 2.94. When does he get to be considered a successful veteran?
John Lackey should have been nowhere near a mound in the playoffs last season, but Maddon kept him on the postseason roster. It blew up in the manager’s face when some bad decisions (ahem, Wade Davis’ 44 pitches in Game 5 of the NLDS) forced him to use the 38-year-old Lackey three times in the NL Championship Series. It blew up in Maddon’s face only if you consider Lackey’s four earned runs in 3 2/3 innings an explosion.
Hendricks started Game 7 of the 2016 World Series. That was a matter of timing, not design. But he was the perfect man for the job – seemingly calm, definitely ready. He gave up one earned run in 4 2/3 innings and was pulled. Sigh. It was his lot in life being played out on the biggest stage.
It might be an apples-and-oranges comparison, but when will Hendricks be afforded the same big-boy status that players like Addison Russell, Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant get?
He’s nicknamed “The Professor’’ because he went to Dartmouth, which automatically makes him a “cerebral’’ pitcher. He’s not flashy in any way. The only thing that speaks for him is his performance. You’d think that would be enough.