Cubs right-hander Kyle Hendricks has been dealing with shoulder discomfort for more than a month, and while initial MRIs did not reveal any structural damage, a newer MRI and second opinion revealed a capsular tear, Hendricks explained to reporters yesterday (link via Meghan Montemurro of the Chicago Tribune). While capsule tears are often ominous injuries with quite lengthy recovery periods, Hendricks’ tear is relatively small and is not expected to require surgery.
It was already known that Hendricks would not pitch again in 2022, but the diagnosis of the tear obviously adds some additional uncertainty to his long-term outlook. For now, he’ll go through a strengthening program and set his focus on being ready for the 2023 season — the final guaranteed season in a four-year, $55.5MM contract. The Cubs hold a $16MM club option for a fifth season, which comes with a $1.5MM buyout.
From 2016-20, Hendricks was one of the best and most consistent starting pitchers in the National League, logging a combined 3.00 ERA with a 21.1% strikeout rate and an excellent 5.3% walk rate in 787 innings. Hendricks was one of the sport’s most durable arms in that time, requiring only a six-week IL stay in 2017 due to tendinitis in his pitching hand and a minimal 10-day stay in 2019 due to inflammation in his right shoulder.
Since that outstanding half-decade peak, however, Hendricks’ results have tumbled rather quickly. He made 32 starts in 2021 but logged a disappointing 4.77 ERA that was far and away the worst of his career. This year’s 4.80 mark through his first 16 starts was a near identical number. Hendricks, after averaging just 0.89 homers per nine innings pitched through the first seven seasons of his career, has surrendered an average of 1.56 long balls per nine frames since Opening Day 2021. His 17.3% strikeout rate is down nearly four percentage points from that previously mentioned peak, and his 6% walk rate, while still south of the 7.6% league average among starters, is up slightly from Hendricks’ best days as well.
The hope for the Cubs, of course, is that a healthier Hendricks can return to form and rejoin a rotation that also includes veteran Marcus Stroman and 27-year-olds Justin Steele and Keegan Thompson. Right-hander Adrian Sampson, 30, has been solid through 10 starts as well. Former top prospect Adbert Alzolay, who started 21 games for the Cubs last year, has missed the entire 2022 season thus far due to a lat strain. However, he embarked on a minor league rehab assignment just yesterday and could yet return before the end of the year.
The extent to which Hendricks progresses from the tear between now and the onset of free agency will, on some level, inform the Cubs’ approach to addressing their pitching staff over the winter. Solid as Steele (3.25 ERA, 3.75 SIERA in 113 2/3 innings) and Thompson (3.97 ERA, 4.21 SIERA, 104 2/3 innings), there’ll still be a need to bring in some reinforcements. Owner Tom Ricketts recently vowed to be “very active” in free agency, although those comments perhaps deliberately stopped short of forecasting an aggressive pursuit of top-tier free agents.
Cubs starters this season rank 21st in the Majors in ERA (4.33), 24th in FIP (4.41) and 20th in SIERA (4.23). They’re also 19th in strikeout rate (20.4%) but have the game’s 10th-highest walk rate (8%). Left-handers Drew Smyly and Wade Miley are both ticketed for free agency this winter. Smyly does have a mutual option on his one-year contract, but it’s quite rare for both sides of a mutual option to be exercised and Smyly has thrown well enough that he could seek a larger guarantee or perhaps a multi-year deal on the open market.