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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.

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Photo: David Zalubowski/AP/Shutterstock
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.

Adbert Alzolay Jersey

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Sahadev Sharma at The Athletic did a lengthy and informative and delightful and nerdy Q&A with recently-promoted Cubs Assistant GM/VP of Pitching Craig Breslow. It is the kind of awesome deep dive that makes my day.

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For all the Cubs prospect hipsters out there, all eyes are going to be on Craig Breslow and the Cubs revamped pitching development apparatus. “I think we’ve built an infrastructure around this group to extract as much talent and value as we possibly can.”

— Sahadev Sharma (@sahadevsharma) December 22, 2020

There’s so much in there that you can sink your teeth into, including Breslow’s development, where the Cubs think they can find edges, how you marry the process and the players, and how physical high performance programs might be the next wave.

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One part that really stood out to me was confidence you could sense from Breslow that what the Cubs were able to do with Adbert Alzolay, who developed and deployed an effective new slider at the dang big league level within the span of just a few weeks, isn’t necessarily a fluky one-off. To be sure, Alzolay is a stud who worked so hard and was so open to the process that he deserves all the credit in the world. You can’t presume every pitcher will be able to approach things like Alzolay did. But, like I said, you get the sense that Breslow and the Cubs believe they have a real angle in pitcher development here.

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Starting pitcher Adbert Alzolay #73 of the Chicago Cubs delivers the ball against the Chicago White Sox at Guaranteed Rate Field on September 27, 2020 in Chicago, Illinois. Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
The Cubs haven’t been able to cross much off their offseason checklist so far. And with the winter meetings now over, the bulk of their work still lies ahead.

Things haven’t moved as quickly as anyone would like, and the Cubs still have moves they must make before heading to spring training in two months.

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Here are three key areas the Cubs still need to improve this offseason:

Starting pitching

Right-handers Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks showed last season that they can be a formidable 1-2 punch and lead any rotation. In fact, with two frontline starters at the top, the rotation might be the Cubs’ biggest strength going into 2021. Both pitchers are under club control for the next three seasons and should give the Cubs some hope that a few moves can put them back in a position to contend.

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But there are questions about the rotation after Darvish and Hendricks. Right-handers Alec Mills and Adbert Alzolay seem to be in line to be the Cubs’ No. 3 and No. 4 starters, and while both showed flashes of what they might be able to do with more opportunities, can they perform that way over a full season?

Among Breslow’s comments on that topic:

What I can say is that type of process is something that we have implemented and are scaling such that if it turns out that other pitchers in the organization have the latent ability to make that adjustment as quickly as Adbert did, I believe that that will manifest itself on a much broader scale ….

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I’m very hopeful and optimistic that we should expect more. I think we have a really talented group of minor-league pitchers and I think we’ve built an infrastructure around this group to extract as much talent and value as we possibly can by being more aggressive in initiatives, whether they are pitch design initiatives, velocity programming, pitch usage and attack plans. We’ve tried to do this through a process that should be scalable and transferable.

So if we look at Alzolay as proof of concept — and it’s difficult because he’s just one individual, but I think we can talk to the flashes of success that even Tyson Miller showed with a couple of new pitches and the excitement around Brailyn [Marquez]’s sinker, Justin Steele, who didn’t get into a game at the big-league level, but showed really well at the alternate site with a new pitch (slider) — I think we can start to point to more than just a single individual and we can start to talk about actually a development approach and philosophy. And to me that’s the difference between the one-off success stories and propelling an entire player development apparatus to the forefront of the industry.

Hey, bonus eyeball emojis there for the specific name drops of Miller, Marquez, and Steele.

There’s nothing new about organizations trying to help pitchers add and/or refine pitches. But what you only very rarely see is a guy adding a new pitch and then using it effectively against hitters in the span of a single season, let alone a single month. Usually, a guy has always tinkered with a pitch, and maybe had a breakthrough over the course of an offseason, and then maybe he starts to incorporated it more and more over the course of a season. And that’s if things go very well for a pitch’s development. So if the Cubs actually have some way to know when and how to get a guy throwing a new pitch – at a game-ready level – within a single season, then, yeah, that’d be a monumental step in pitcher development.

That’s not to mention refining and improving existing pitches, which all kinda falls under a similar umbrella, and which we kinda got some hints at this past season for a number of pitchers (not just prospects).

Because the Cubs only started the overhaul of their player development infrastructure in the pre-2019 offseason, and didn’t really complete the hiring process on that front until last offseason, this was actually the first year where the battle station was fully operational, so to speak. Except thanks to the pandemic, there was no minor league season, so even if all the personnel and behind-the-scenes processes were in place this year, there wasn’t actually an opportunity to work through these things in games. So, like you keep hearing from me, next year is potentially going to be eye-popping in the minor leagues for the Cubs. Or at least we hope it will be, and then we hope it keeps improving from there.

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Today the Chicago Cubs added three prospects to their 40-man roster in advance of the deadline to do so for Rule 5 Draft purposes: righties Cory Abbott and Keegan Thompson, and infielder Christopher Morel.

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Not surprisingly or coincidentally, these three are probably the best Cubs prospects who were eligible for Rule 5 selection this year, thus they get protected. As we’ve discussed this week, that still doesn’t make it quite a lock to add a guy to the 40-man roster (not all good prospects would get drafted in the Rule 5, because they can’t necessarily stick on a big league roster the next year), but these guys were close enough and/or talented enough that the Cubs didn’t want to mess around.

Much more from Bryan on Morel here and Abbott here, with a bit on Thompson, too. Morel is one of the Cubs’ highest upside prospects, and was at the alternate site this past year (but has not played games above Low-A). He’ll probably play at High-A next season – third base, most likely – and we’ll see how the weird 2020 season treated his development.

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Cory Abbott may be an internal option to provide depth for the Cubs in 2021.
Over the past year, I have spoken at varying lengths about the Chicago Cubs‘ future options within the rotation and how it projects moving forward into the coming seasons. One of those prospects who has been discussed at different points is right-handed pitcher Cory Abbott.

Abbott ranked as Baseball America‘s 149th prospect in the 2017 MLB Draft. His first professional action came at Class-A Short Season, where he started five games and finished with a 3.86 ERA over 14 innings. Each start encapsulated a few innings where Abbott could get his feet wet at a higher level.

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From 2018 to the present, the 25-year-old has serenely climbed the rankings ladder within the organization. In 2018, Abbott ranked as the number 16 overall prospect in Chicago’s pipeline. After a strong showing the season before, he cracked the top ten in 2019, moving between Class-A South Bend and Class-A Advanced Myrtle Beach. He posted a collective 2.50 ERA in 115 innings.

Last season Abbott made the jump to Double-A Tennessee. His final five starts at Myrtle Beach encapsulated a stretch of ball where he posted a 0.67 ERA over 27 innings where Abbott posted a 27.4 percent strikeout percentage and a 2.80 FIP.

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The continued growth Abbott displayed shone through with the Smokies. He made a career-high 26 starts, finishing with ten quality starts and a 3.01 ERA. His strikeout rate improved, as did his walk rate. Opponents hit barely over .200 off Abbott, and a significant improvement in his WHIP showcased his ability to limit those opposing hitters.

Similar to how Abbott finished his year in 2018 with the Pelicans, he strung together another stretch to end his 2019 campaign in which he posted a staunch 1.17 ERA over his final nine starts. Most impressive was the notable increase once again in his strikeouts as his rate soared to 34.5 percent. In a fun and strangely consistent finish, Abbott also posted a 2.80 FIP in those final starts.

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Patrick Mooney, a senior writer at The Athletic and Cubs correspondent at Baseball America, recently wrote a piece on Abbott. Coming off a shoulder injury that punctuated his pre-spring training throwing program, the right-hander touched on working his way back and staying in the purview as a future rotation option.

NEXT: Five Cubs prospects you’ll see in Chicago in 2021
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Regarding 2021 and the expected roster shakeup inevitably heading the Cubs’ way, Abbott can very much be in consideration for a back-end role in the rotation. In the past, he has been scouted as a future number four starter, and if the Cubs wish to continue to grow the crop of the farm, Abbott represents the perfect option and should be on fans’ radar next year.

Abbott and Thompson are just-about-big-league-ready starting pitchers, with Abbott the Cubs’ 2019 minor league pitcher of the year, and Thompson potentially just as effective, though slowed by injuries. Each could easily factor into the depth starting mix for the Cubs in 2021, though each figures to start the year in the Iowa Cubs rotation.

The Cubs 40-man roster now stands at 37.