Despite ‘Good Steps’ from Kyle Hendricks, Cubs Can’t Wait Much Longer for Correction

Kyle Hendricks looked a little better on Sunday, though only because he’d pitched so poorly in his first four starts. The Professor held an opponent to under five runs for the first time and racked up a season-high five strikeouts while issuing no walks for the second time. But he lasted only four innings and 56 pitches before being pulled with the top of the Marlins’ order due up the next frame.

If it’s moral victories you seek, look no further than Hendricks lowering his ERA to an even 12.00 by finding a feel for both the curve and change on Sunday afternoon. He also threw 44 strikes, a good sign in light of the number of uncompetitive misses he’d been throwing. Again, though, things have gotten pretty bad when we’re having to polish clouds in the hope of finding a silver lining.

“There were some positive signs,” Craig Counsell told reporters after the game. “Some good steps. Some positive steps. Some good innings, for sure. Some took-control-of-the-inning type innings. But we need better results, frankly.”

Counsell was speaking about an opening inning that saw Hendricks sit the Marlins down in order and then the third, when he allowed a single while striking out the side. Thing is, giving up five other hits, one of which went over the fence, kind of negated all the good stuff. The manager expressed confidence that Hendricks would figure things out, but a team with a patchwork bullpen can’t really afford to wait much longer.

Jed Hoyer seemed to be a little more pragmatic on Sunday than we’ve heard him so far when he’s shared more or less the same things Counsell did. That’s why the veteran was in there against the Marlins while hard-throwing rookie Ben Brown worked out of the bullpen. It’s possible Hendricks will remain in the rotation once Justin Steele comes back, pushing Javier Assad into more of a swing role.

From the sounds of it, however, the slack on what has been a longer leash than most would get is starting to run out.

“His place in Cubs history is secure,” Hoyer said to reporters. “I don’t think anything is going to change that. He’s struggling. The velocity is actually the same — if not a tick up — from last year. His location and execution have been poor. He’s paid for it. He’s faced good lineups. I’m not saying anything out of school, I think he has to pitch better.”

Hendricks’ velocity is indeed up just a bit from last year, and his 88.2 mph average is higher than he’s posted since sitting 88.9 mph in 2016. But his swinging-strike rate of 7.0% is well below anything he’s ever put up and his 16.9% called-strike rate likewise represents a career worst. According to Baseball Savant, his fastball is currently in the first percentile for run value and his changeup is in the fifth percentile.

And while an absurd .392 BABIP against — sixth-highest in MLB (min. 20 IP) — indicates there’s a good deal of bad fortune at play, that only holds so much water. Then again, that 4.38 xFIP says he should be getting much better results. Same for those 83rd-percentile exit velocity and chase rate marks. But until the game is decided by expected stats, Hendricks simply must improve his results.

If the Cubs were to make the unlikely choice to part ways with the last vestige of their World Series title, a move that would be both more and less jarring because of previous departures, they’ve got replacements lined up. Brown is the most obvious and Hayden Wesneski looked great in long relief after getting next to no sleep over the prior 24 hours.

Then there’s Cade Horton, who has risen quickly through the ranks since being drafted and now sits No. 2 on the list of the Cubs’ top prospects. After a very deliberate on-ramp this spring, Horton has absolutely carved through three starts at Double-A Tennessee. He’s got a 1.59 ERA on eight hits allowed and 12 strikeouts to go with only two walks. The only issue is that he’s not gone more than four innings as the Cubs continue to bring him along slowly.

Provided they’re willing to stretch him out a little further, it’s not at all outside the realm of possibility that he makes it to Chicago this season. It will probably be in a relief role so the Cubs can continue to restrict his workload, then he can transition to the rotation in 2025 or ’26. In addition to the stuff, which is obvious to anyone who watches him pitch, those who’ve been around Horton have lauded his makeup.

“Not just even baseball-wise — I haven’t seen him throw a ton,” Jameson Taillon said recently. “But in Spring Training, he wasn’t in big league camp and he made a point of coming over and watching our ‘pens and watching guys warm up before their starts. I was super impressed. He’s 22 [years old] and just super mature.

“We hung out together a couple times in Tennessee and some of the things he was saying, I was like, ‘This dude, at least between the ears, that’s not going to be his problem.’ He’s dialed in for a young dude. I was thinking, ‘Man, I wish I was like that at that age.’ I was always mature and advanced for my age, and he’s ahead of the game right there. I’m super excited about him.”

Here’s a wild idea: The Cubs should move Hendricks to another role — bullpen, coach, whatever — and replace him with Horton. The innings load would be about the same and the upside would be almost infinitely higher. I’m not really being serious here, though I’m not really joking either.

It does make all the sense in the world for the Cubs to fast-track Horton regardless, if only because this season has made everyone all too aware of the injury risk for pitchers. And when the biggest indicator of future injury is past injury, there’s little need to have a guy who’s already undergone an elbow reconstruction wasting any more bullets in the minors than absolutely necessary.

There’s a whole lot to like about the young arms the Cubs have coming up, but now we have to hope the old arms can make the wait worthwhile.

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