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The Cubs are betting success can be found in a soft-tossing starting rotation.
Cubs ace Kyle Hendricks is unconventional in style. His fastball doesn’t touch 90 MPH, and he gets by with confusing hitters and inducing weak contact with a devastating changeup and the occasional curveball. Having a guy like this in your rotation can be a good thing because it’s a change of pace from the typical mid-90s fastball-slider combination.

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However, the Cubs must seem to think this is the only way to get outs these days? Heading into 2021, they will have three soft-tossing pitchers in the rotation with Hendricks, Alec Mills and now Zach Davies, who was acquired in the trade of Yu Darvish.

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Davies’ average velocity on his fastball for his career is 89.2 MPH. Mills’ average velocity is 90.1, and Hendricks tops out at 87.3. Davies and Hendricks have both had sustained careers of success at this point, and the jury is still out on what Mills actually is. He showed a lot of good things this season but there was a whole lot of bad, as well.

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While trading Yu Darvish is a compelling option, there are many reasons why the Chicago Cubs should not trade Kyle Hendricks.

by Brian MischlerDecember 22, 2020
After already diving into whether the Chicago Cubs should trade Yu Darvish, Kris Bryant, and Willson Contreras, it’s time to do the same for Kyle Hendricks. In a normal offseason, I wouldn’t even consider pondering this thought. Organizations with division title aspirations typically don’t trade frontline starters. However, with Theo Epstein’s premature departure and all the rumors of Jed Hoyer pushing for a heavy rebuild this offseason, it’s worth considering.

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Stats Prove Hendricks has been a Top 10-15 Starter During his Cubs Career
We can’t answer whether the Cubs should trade Kyle Hendricks without first dissecting just how great Hendricks has been in his Chicago Cubs career. So, let’s take a look at some statistics. The table below shows where Kyle Hendricks ranks in six relevant stats among all qualified starting pitchers since 2015.

Cubs Offseason Yu Darvish Trade Kyle Hendricks Trade Chicago Cubs
Source: FanGraphs
I don’t even have to ignore certain years to prove Hendricks’ greatness. There’s no anomaly here. Ever since his first full MLB season with the Cubs in 2015, Kyle Hendricks has been a top 10-15 MLB starter. All the above stats point to that conclusion.

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If you think this production hasn’t translated to the postseason, you’d be incorrect. Hendricks touts a 3.12 ERA in 57.2 postseason innings pitched for the Cubs. In the 2016 NLCS and World Series, he posted a 0.83 ERA in 21.2 IP. He’s not only been successful in the regular season, but he’s also dominated when the stakes are highest. Yet Kyle Hendricks is never talked about nationally, has zero All-Star appearances, and is never mentioned in any “Ace” discussions. Why is this?

Kyle Hendricks Doesn’t Strike Hitters Out…So What?
Well, the answer is that Kyle Hendricks doesn’t strike hitters out. Since 2015, Hendricks is 97th in K/9 at 7.78, a far cry from where he ranks in the statistics outlined above. The fact that Hendricks does not overpower hitters with a 98+ MPH fastball is another reason why baseball undervalues his abilities. Nothing about his physical makeup warrants intimidation. Thus, nobody outside the Cubs’ organization considers him an “Ace.”

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But this is a ridiculous mindset. I’m supposed to devalue the six above statistics that indicate Kyle Hendricks is a top 10-15 starter because he doesn’t strike enough hitters out? Why does that make his fWAR, ERA, and exit velocity over a six-year span any less impressive? It doesn’t. Give the Chicago Cubs credit for realizing this and refusing to doubt his early success. The rest of baseball holds on to this medieval thinking that the game’s top pitchers have to overwhelm the opposition with strikeouts. I reject that premise entirely.

Strikeouts are needed in certain situations, don’t get me wrong. When men are on base, missing bats is how pitchers get out of jams. But so does consistently generating weak contact. Kyle Hendricks is generating more weak contact than the “Aces” that are striking more hitters out than he does, so who’s to say which method is more “Ace” worthy? If anything, I’d contend Hendricks’ method is more valuable because pitching to contact keeps pitch count down. Constantly avoiding contact to strike hitters out is how starters have an 85+ pitch count by the fifth inning.

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Kyle Hendricks Does Have Nasty Stuff
When analyzing Hendricks’ lack of strikeouts, most fans, even Cubs fans, jump to the false conclusion that he doesn’t have nasty stuff. This is wrong. We all know how deceptive Hendricks’ changeup is. Nobody would be surprised that it ranks second in baseball since 2015. But a fact that eludes almost every baseball fan? His fastball ranks 11th in that same timeframe. And he throws 86 MPH.

Hendricks’ fastball is effective because he mixes speeds and changes the hitter’s eye level better than anybody in MLB. He can also place any of his pitches wherever he wants. This allows him to not only get away with throwing 86, but use it as a weapon. It doesn’t matter that Hendricks’ approach to the game lacks the “wow” factor that comes with strikeouts. The end result is the same: he gets hitters out.

Kyle Hendricks Cubs
Photo: David Zalubowski/AP/Shutterstock
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Team-Friendly Contracts for Starting Pitchers are Rare
Everything I’ve outlined is why the Cubs were able to extend Kyle Hendricks through 2024 at $14 million annually Baseball touted his early success as unsustainable given his perceived lack of overpowering stuff. Rather than write him off under a cloud of doubt, the Chicago Cubs capitalized and signed a top 10-15 starter on the cheap relative to his value. That is seldom seen. Frontline starters typically come with a hefty price tag.

Given Hendricks’ production, team-friendly contract, and age, his trade value should be as high as any starter in MLB not named Shane Bieber. But given baseball’s tendency to undervalue Hendricks’ skillset, it’s almost a certainty that no other ballclub values him that high. And if that’s the case, why should the Chicago Cubs trade Kyle Hendricks if the offered returns won’t match his historical production?

With those three, you have three of the softest-tossing arms in the league in the rotation. Chicago, which has badly needed a philosophical change at the plate for years now, now seemingly need to think about an overhaul on the pitching side of things. With two spots left in the 2021 rotation, the Cubs need to think big picture when it comes to rounding it out.

A rotation full of low-velocity pitchers might be a recipe for disaster. If teams can time it up, the Cubs could be in for some trouble. It’s one thing to face one of those guys, but facing three of them consecutively is a different story.

This article is not meant as an indictment or an attack on the Cubs. It’s a plea as a fan to change the organizational philosophy as fans have been wanting it for a long time. Theo Epstein stepped away, which ushered in a new era, and with that, philosophies should change – or at the very least be reevaluated.

Hendricks, on his best day, carves up hitters with the best of them, but most soft-tossing pitchers just aren’t entertaining or aesthetically pleasing to watch, and the Cubs will now have three of them starting games. Fortunately, the bullpen for the Cubs has more velocity than the rotation, although that’s a low bar at this point.

NEXT: Chicago Cubs: Examining the return in the Yu Darvish trade
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Given he’s heading into his final year of team control, we don’t even know if Davies will make it past the trade deadline. If the team’s treading water and he’s performing well, the righty could make a perfect ‘flip’ guy. But, at least out of the gate, the Cubs are betting heavily on a group of arms that are hardly overpowering in any sense.

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It’s not uncommon for me to have little working knowledge of a player the Chicago Cubs select in the Rule 5 Draft. The players are, by their very eligibility for the draft, not necessarily top prospects. But usually I recognize a name. I gotta tell you … I do not recognize this name.

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Today, the Cubs took 24-year-old righty Gray Fenter from the Orioles’ organization, and I’m gonna have to do some quick legwork to get up to speed. It’s all the more difficult when there wasn’t a minor league season, of course.

First, the minor league stats for the 2015 7th rounder:

The Cubs acquired Wick from the Padres on Nov. 20, 2018, and Wieck came over from the Padres at the 2019 trade deadline.

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Both have gotten big outs for the Cubs the last two seasons, but neither acquisition made a lot of noise at the time, and as the Cubs assemble their bullpen for 2021, they’re looking for more of the same.

The Cubs selected right-hander Gray Fenter in the Rule 5 draft Thursday and picked up right-hander Robert Stock off waivers from the Red Sox on Dec. 2.

Fenter, who’s 16-9 with a 3.21 ERA in five minor-league seasons, has made 49 starts and could figure in the team’s starting-pitching depth.

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Stock was 0-1 with a 4.73 ERA with the Red Sox last season but has had some success at the major-league level with a 2.50 ERA in 32 appearances in 2018.

But their records aren’t that relevant. It’s all about certain traits — things that jump off the page — that have caught scouts’ eyes. Teams will zero in on an intriguing facet and try to build off that. That’s what the Cubs have done recently, and they’re hoping their strong track record continues.

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“I think [with] a lot of the guys that you end up claiming on waivers, there’s normally a couple of things that you see that you want to tweak,” team president Jed Hoyer said. “And I’m not naive to think that when one of our guys is claimed on waivers, I’m sure people have the same thoughts.

(via FanGraphs)
Immediately, I’m wondering how and why a guy Fenter’s age was putting up numbers like that at A ball and was not promoted.

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Some quick research indicates that Fenter was a big-time overslot signing out of high school (strong commit to Mississippi), and he’s simply developed very slowly since then. He had Tommy John surgery in 2016, saw very limited action in 2017, and then had limited seasons in 2018 and 2019. He was at times considered a top 15-20 prospect in the Orioles system, but the slow development seems to have taken him off those lists.

Again, though, I’m wondering why he wasn’t pitching at High-A, at least, in 2019, because he was clearly too good for Low-A. He’s pitched in the mid-90s at times, and has a huge 12-6 curveball. It’s pretty easy to imagine that the Cubs are thinking he could be an immediate bullpen option, even though he’s pitched as a starter in his minor league career thus far.

This looks to be a deep scouting play, which is kind of wild when there were no games to scout. As near as I can tell, Fenter wasn’t at the alternate site or instructs, either. So, yeah, deep play. More on Fenter soon.

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Chicago Cubs: RHP Gray Fenter (Rule 5 pick)

The Cubs will have multiple bullpen spots up for grabs this spring, and Fenter will receive a long look as a Rule 5 selection from the Baltimore organization. In 2019, he went 8-2 with a 1.81 ERA, 1.10 WHIP and 123 strikeouts in 94.1 innings while holding opposing hitters to a .185 batting average at Single-A. He has the stuff to thrive in a bullpen role with an upper 90s fastball and a plus curveball, and he could be a pleasant surprise.

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Yes, I know. You hate the Yu Darvish trade. You think the Cubs are tanking.

In The Athletic, Peter Gammons says that isn’t so:

For the Cubs, this isn’t about tanking.

Well, that’s a provocative statement. Let’s let Gammons elaborate:

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“The farm system,” says one Cubs observer, “is already being completely rebuilt. The Padres trade only makes that better and Cristian Hernandez, who is in this year’s international class out of the Dominican, has been comped to A-Rod.”

Well, that’s very interesting. Of course, Hernandez is another 17-year-old kid and even if he does wind up as good a player as Alex Rodriguez (without the PEDs, one would hope), he’s still two to three years away from the big leagues.

But wait, there’s more!

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The Cubs think fireballing lefty Brailyn Márquez will be up this season, as will right-hander Adbert Alzolay. Catcher Miguel Amaya is close. Outfielder Brennen Davis has the earmarks of a star. Nico Hoerner is a really good player, in the infield or center field.

That sounds like a system ready to produce, if not multiple star players, at least solid major-league regulars and pitchers.

And what about the four players the Cubs got from the Padres?

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“We really like the guys we sent to the Cubs,” says one Padres official who, unlike some who commented on the trade, saw all of them extensively in the instructional league. He sees 6-foot-5 switch-hitting shortstop Reggie Preciado as a “hit tool guy who can play a corner.” Shortstop Yeison Santana is a “strong kid who could stay at short or anywhere in the infield.” Outfielder Ismael Mena is “a really athletic front-of-the-order tools guy who probably will be on a corner.” Outfielder Owen Caissie is a June second-rounder with power.

This all sounds really good. Yes, they are all probably at least three years away, perhaps more. But as Gammons reminds us, speaking of Fernando Tatis Jr.:

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None of the players the Cubs got from the Padres have played in the minor leagues yet. But neither had Tatis, five years ago.

And as I have noted elsewhere, the Cubs could still contend in the NL Central in 2021 even after trading Darvish:

As Hoyer planned the reboot, he could make the Darvish trade — and perhaps more to come by the trading deadline — because of the lack of spending in the NL Central. The Cardinals have not seemed inclined to add any big pieces. The Brewers can’t afford to. The Reds seemed poised to be back in the high life, but they are losing Trevor Bauer, traded Raisel Iglesias and are moving on to their next window. And the Pirates are not going to add high-priced players.

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“Perhaps more to come by the trading deadline.” Well, maybe. That would depend on how the Cubs are doing in the division race, no? If the Cubs are in first place at the deadline, would they still trade potential free agents Bryant, Baez and Rizzo? I’d think they’d rather hang on to them in that case, even if this Cubs team doesn’t seem likely to win any postseason round — and remember, we still don’t know what sort of postseason we’re going to have. It could wind up being expanded to the point of having wild-card series again, as we did in October 2020.

I don’t believe the Cubs are going to trade Willson Contreras, despite the rumors out there. He’s not expensive and he’s under team control through 2022. Jed Hoyer and his team should be working on a contract extension for Willson, in my view. As Gammons notes:

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When there is a restoration of normality at Wrigleyville, the Ricketts family investments will begin to profit again. The Darvish trade will free them of $19 million to use on player payroll.

Get it done, Cubs. Because if you don’t, those Wrigleyville profits might not happen.