All posts by Gordon Wittenmyer

Why Chicago Cubs need to keep ‘terrible’ Kyle Hendricks around this season

Gordon Wittenmyer

Reds beat writer for Cincinnati Enquirer, co-host Cubs #ReKap podcast; formerly with Chicago Sun-Times. @GDubMLB

When Kyle Hendricks headed across the outfield grass from the bullpen to the Wrigley Field mound in Thursday’s eighth inning, it looked so wrong.

No matter how right it might be.

Among the most consequential pitchers in franchise history, Hendricks is among an elite group that can be counted on one hand, starting with Fergie Jenkins.

But among the worst-performing pitchers for the second-place Cubs this year, you only need one finger to get to Hendricks, and a sizable group of fans seem to have picked out the finger that applies.

But you don’t have to take anybody else’s word for Hendricks’ career-worst start.

“Terrible” was the word he used to describe his performance when manager Craig Counsell sent him from the rotation to the bullpen after a stint on the “injured” list didn’t solve his early season woes.

How bad has Hendricks pitched this season? When he got knocked around by the Braves Thursday and allowed two runs in two innings, his ERA actually went down, to 10.47.

How bad?

Put it this way: If the Cubs were owned by the governor of South Dakota instead of the governor of Nebraska (and sundry other Rickettses), it might not have ended much better for Hendricks than it did for a dog named Cricket.

But this is Kyle Hendricks. The Professor. Mr. Game 7 starter. The guy who stared down Clayton Kershaw when Kershaw was still the best pitcher on the planet and avenged a 1-0 loss by pitching 7 1/3 scoreless innings to send the Cubs to the most celebrated World Series in major league history.

The last man standing from that 2016 championship.

“It’s huge, just who he is as a person, his experience in this game, his success,” Ian Happ said. “He’s seen it all. He’s super accomplished. He’s been consistent and consistent with his work. He’s a guy that everybody respects and looks up to, and I’m really lucky to have been able to play with him for now my eighth year. That’s pretty awesome.”

Happ, the second-most-tenured Cub, said that during a conversation about Hendricks’ stature and importance to this next-gen competitive team Jed Hoyer has put together to replicate what he and Theo Epstein’s core accomplished nearly a decade ago.

Other guys on this team have won championships.

“He did it here,” Happ said. “He’s seen everything here since 2014. He’s seen that run — ’15, ’16, ’17. He’s seen everything in this clubhouse, so his experience is super valuable to the whole group but definitely to the pitching staff, what he’s been able to do in his career.”

So now what?

What do you do with a guy that respected and valuable in the room, a guy who isn’t getting it done on the field for a team built and paid and expected to win now?

It’s hard to imagine at 34 that Hendricks has suddenly lost the ability to pitch. For the first seven years of his career, his 3.12 ERA was matched by only six pitchers — five Cy Young winners (Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Corey Kluber, Jacob deGrom, Zack Greinke) and a seven-time All-Star (Chris Sale).

But it’s hard to argue with the results so far.

Especially after a long-term shoulder injury that cost him much of 2022 and ’23. Especially with the urgency attached to this season after the lightning-strike hiring of Counsell for $40 million in November and seven years it’s been since these guys won a playoff game.

What’s left to do with Hendricks? Anybody?


No, not that.

“Our pitching is precarious enough right now that we can’t — we are going day by day with a lot of this right now,” Counsell said.

That’s what makes the Cubs’ course with Hendricks the right one.

Right now at least.

Since his first start of the season, Hendricks’ numbers the first time through the order have been competitive, and then not so much the second time through. And they fall off a cliff the third time through.

It’s possible a multi-inning, middle relief role could be a fit for the moment, especially for a crappy bullpen desperate for some passable performances from more than a couple guys between now and the trade deadline.

And what if he finds a way to thrive in the role?

Counsell and Hoyer, were quick to suggest nobody should write off Hendricks’ career yet, even if they didn’t always sound especially and even if their actions took them right up to the line of doing that.

If Hendricks can salvage any semblance of a productive season, he could wind up being the key to the pitching staff that Happ suggested on the eve of the season.

If not?

Well, maybe the trade deadline will help. Along with the mediocre division. And maybe Shota Imanaga won’t regress too much the second and third time he starts seeing teams — and maybe even become the first rookie to win a Cy Young in over 40 years.

For now, Hendricks is under contract through this year. If he doesn’t find a way to pitch well, he’s not likely to find much free agent value even if he wants to keep pitching.

And that brings it back again to the way the Cubs are handling this. Hendricks isn’t ready to talk about his future beyond playing.

But nobody in the organization knows more about pitching than he does. Remember, this is the guy who did his own breakdowns and pitching plans for his minor-league starts down to the kind of details that rivaled former coach Mike Borzello’s then-state-of-the-art plans a decade ago when Hendricks broke in.

Few know as much about winning first-hand.

And the Dartmouth business grad knows a few things about the baseball economics of evaluation.

Maybe Hendricks will get back in the rotation. Counsell said that’s the goal. Maybe he’ll even pitch a few more years before he starts thinking about what comes next.

Regardless, “at this point nothing he could ever do here forward should have any impact on his time here,” Hoyer said. “He’s been an amazing member of the pitching staff and an amazing part of the organization.”

But this is a guy that makes sense to give every opportunity to succeed again right now, for the sake of what it might mean for the team on the field if it happens — and what it means in the clubhouse either way.

And then to keep him in-house after that as a big part of the organization’s pitching structure.

Because no matter what happens on the mound the rest of this season, as they say in South Dakota, that’s a dog that’ll hunt.

Why the Chicago Cubs need to seize moment and sign Jordan Montgomery 

@GDubMLB – Gordon Wittenmyer

Reds beat writer for Cincinnati Enquirer, co-host Cubs #ReKap podcast; formerly with Chicago Sun-Times.

Time for Tom Ricketts to seize the moment and spend more of all that money the fans keep giving him.

PHOENIX, AZ — With all due respect to profits, it’s time for the Chicago Cubs to start worrying about losses.

A handful of injuries over the past two weeks of spring training provided a quick reminder of how little depth the Cubs have before they start tapping minor-leaguers to cover important roles, which highlights just how fragile even the more modest 85- and 87-win projections are.

None of the injuries look especially serious, although $68 million starter Jameson Taillon’s back issue likely puts him on the injured list at least briefly to start the season.

More to the point, the lack of depth getting spotlighted right now is not an ideal roster reality for anybody talking so openly about the playoffs with realistic expectations after missing the postseason by a game last year — perhaps urgent expectations after missing the field the last three years.

And it’s an especially bad look — and worse business — for a high-revenue team already flirting with the luxury tax threshold. Even without doing anything more with the roster this year, some project the Cubs’ final payroll number to tip-toe across the first threshold by the time contract bonuses and natural roster churn are added.

Trading some incremental salary to stay below that level — as they did last year — would be an option between now and the July 30 trade deadline 

But that’s a bad tack and a terrible PR move (read: ticket sales, TV viewership) if they’re hanging anywhere near the leaders in the National League Central.

Which brings us back to the status quo and how stupid it would be to go into the luxury tax by a buck or two.

Which, in turn, makes the solution obvious:

Go. Sign. Jordan. Montgomery.

Not that we’re trying to tell Tom (or Joe) Ricketts how to spend their money.

But we have no problem telling them how they should spend more of that mountain of cash that Cubs fans keep forking over for a product that all too often falls short of the premium retail prices they’re paying.

Hell, even before Taillon’s back locked up on Saturday, this was a Cubs team that essentially prepared to roll out a reasonable facsimile of last year’s 83-win group, without having so much as filled its third base deficit.

In fact, two of the three big-league guys in the flawed mix at the position — Patrick Wisdom (quad) and Nick Madrigal (hamstring) — are sidelined with what appear to be relatively minor injuries.

At least they’re still blessed with good health in presumptive Opening Day third baseman Chris Morel — he of the thumpy bat and grumpy glove. Even if it’s as a place holder for flavor-of-the-month prospect Matt Shaw.

Free agent Matt Chapman would have been the perfect addition to address that. Free agent Jeimer Candelario would have been an upgrade that made sense.

But neither of those moves would have been the difference between winning the division and missing the playoffs again, because the NL Central is going to be won with pitching.

And the Cubs already looked like they might lean toward rookie left-hander Jordan Wicks as their fifth starter to open the season.

Now that might mean Wicks in the first four and going with Drew Smyly or Javier Assad or Hayden Wesneski at No. 5 to open the season — which, depending on the choice, could compromise the bullpen.

And as much as scouts, metrics and fans love top prospect Cade Horton, his best-case timeline for a debut is well into the season. And depth option Caleb Kilian is out until midseason with a teres major injury.

Believe it or not, the Cincinnati Reds have a deeper rotation of big-league-experienced starting pitchers. Free agent newcomer Frankie Montas is their Opening Day starter, and free agent newcomer Nick Martinez is in play for a fifth-starter job — unless he winds up as a swingman/sixth starter to open.

And like it or not, either the Brewers (Freddy Peralta) or the Cardinals (Sonny Gray) have the best No. 1 starter in the division. You can debate which of those two it is, but either way it’s not the Cubs.

That’s why the Cubs need to take advantage of their biggest competitive advantage in the division — their enormous revenue edge — to take advantage of the quality starting pitching still available in free agency.

Specifically: Go. Sign. Jordan. Montgomery.

Cy Young winner Blake Snell’s out there, too. But he comes with a qualifying offer means surrendering a draft pick by signing him.

Montgomery pitched in the World Series last fall. He was a 4-WAR pitcher last year and a big part of the Texas Rangers drive to the championship after being acquired at the trade deadline.

He has a career 3.68 ERA — 3.48 over the past three seasons, when he’s averaged 31 starts and 175 innings. He came up with the Yankees and pitched in the postseason for three teams — and in three of the past four Octobers.

With all due respect to Wesneski, Assad, Wicks and any other talented young pitcher Cubs fans might love, Montgomery gives the Cubs the better chance to win. Full stop.

And the Cubs should be in the business of winning. Every year. Certainly now.

Don’t like the idea of offering a five-year, $120-million-or-more deal to get it done? Fine. It shouldn’t take that much at this stage of the process anyway.

Maybe a higher AAV for a three-year deal with opt-outs after each of the first two — similar to Cody Bellinger’s deal? OK.

Just don’t get beat on whatever offers are out there now.

Just do it.

Just win, baby.

And if chairman Tom Ricketts wants to talk about how instructive it was to see the Diamondbacks reach the World Series with a below-average payroll last year and crow about payroll spending “right there at (luxury tax) levels …that should be enough to win our division and be consistent every year,” then he might want to look a little closer at what he’s getting for that spending. Whether the return is competitive enough.

If not, then it might be time to start looking at all those vows over the years to hold his front office bosses accountable for that return. 

Or to look in the mirror.

Because after firing the manager a month after raving about the guy who arguably didn’t do anything wrong, the next scapegoat might be a little harder to find if this thing falls just short again.

How Chicago Cubs’ Jed Hoyer plans to answer baseball’s long unanswerable question

Gordon Wittenmyer


Reds beat writer for Cincinnati Enquirer, co-host Cubs #ReKap podcast; formerly with Chicago Sun-Times.

With Cody Bellinger back, the Cubs are running the same team out in 2024 as the one that fell short in 2023 — and counting on the $40 million manager to make up the difference.

MESA, Arizona — Give credit where $80 million worth of credit is due.

Chicago Cubs president Jed Hoyer got his man when he held out until the final week of February to return free agent Cody Bellinger to the Cubs roster on a deal that guarantees the former MVP the highest annual average value in franchise history.

Which mostly means the boys are back in town for the Cubs home opener April 1 — after a brief detour to Texas to open the season against the defending champs.

It’s not lost on division rivals that the Bellinger signing assured essentially a roster status quo for a team that finished one game short of the playoffs last year.

“It definitely helps them,” said Jonathan India of the Reds. “But it’s the same team from last year.”

And while The Athletic’s Sahadev Sharma had an interesting look through the weeds at the differences between last year’s team and this one, club insiders basically agree with India in private conversations.

With the possible exception of one thing that team president Jed Hoyer mentioned this week in closing as he mentioned the various additions that made him happy with the roster work he was able to do this winter: the new manager.

Even with the Bellinger signing, the most seismic move the Cubs made all winter was unceremoniously kicking manager David Ross to the curb — a month after singing his praises — and signing Craig Counsell to the richest contract for a manager in baseball history (five years, $40 million).

Argue if you like whether unproven free agent Shota Imanaga is an upgrade over 2023 Marcus Stroman in the rotation or whether Hector Neris puts last year’s shaky bullpen over the top in 2024.

On paper, this is not a measurably different team than last year.

For every argument in favor of Neris’ impact, Imanaga’s higher ceiling than Stroman’s or the potential that Michael Busch is better than the collective the Cubs ran out at first base last year, there is an example of a back-nine veteran who’s a year older, a possible concern over Bellinger’s much-maligned soft contact rate late last season and the fingers-crossed concern that one or more guys who stepped up in 2023 (Justin Steele? Adbert Alzolay?) might regress some in 2024.

But wait for it.

Because when it all starts to play out — and certainly when it’s all said and done this year — a lot of the focus on whether the Cubs play better or worse is going to be on the manager making almost as much this season as Imanaga and twice as much as Steele.

And the one who got shafted in November.

In other words, forget pitch labs and hitting labs.

Hoyer has created a manager lab. Or at least created the ideal conditions to stage baseball’s first great manager-value experiment.

Whether it will answer baseball’s long-unanswerable question about just how many wins one manager is worth compared to another, the 2024 Cubs might be as close to an actual scientific laboratory experiment on that subject as anyone could conjure in a real-world, big-league competitive environment.

Counsell is considered by many the best manager in the game — or at least second to Bruce Bochy, who outpaces him 4-0 in rings as a manager.

And for what it’s worth, the imperfect Pythagorean run-differential model for a team’s expected win-loss record, had the ’23 Cubs underperforming by seven wins.

So if the ’24 model is as close to the same team as could be reproduced to run through another 162 games with a different field boss in place?

Well, then, score another high-minded maneuver for today’s smart-guy front offices.

Hoyer may not have actually upgraded the roster of this big-market Cubs team with big-talking plans for October.

But maybe he’ll get an answer on that supposedly unanswerable question, and he and Counsell will reinvent the game — or at least some of its analytics.

For now, consider baseball’s first manager lab open for business in Chicago.

Chicago Cubs Play Dangerous Game: Manager vs. Best Player – Wittenmyer

Gordon Wittenmyer


Reds beat writer for Cincinnati Enquirer, co-host Cubs #ReKap podcast; formerly with Chicago Sun-Times.

PHOENIX — The Chicago Cubs got to spring training with a roster that objectively is not as good as the one they had when they finished last season one game behind the Arizona Diamondbacks for the final National League playoff spot.

If that doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about how the front office of this big-revenue franchise expects to improve in 2024, this does: Even if the Cubs wind up signing the big free agent everybody seems to think they should/will in the next week or so, that would mean an off-season that essentially preserved the roster’s status quo.

Because, of course, that would mean replacing departed free agent Cody Bellinger with a one-year-older Cody Bellinger after replacing departed free agent All-Star Marcus Stroman with $53 million Japanese veteran rookie Shota Imanaga.

In other words, the people running the team that should be the perennial bully in NL’s nerd division either don’t care enough about going for it in 2024 to put their muscle where the Cardinals’ and Brewers’ glass jaws are or …

Or they think the manager was the problem last year. And that this other manager is the difference.

And if either one of those is true, the biggest loser is the fan paying top dollar for a team that looked on the rise last year with promises of bigger and better this year.

The only question in this scenario is which would be the more egregious dereliction of front office duty — or at least the biggest risk for a team like the Cubs to take.

When it comes to the manager, it’s $40 million obvious that team president Jed Hoyer values former Milwaukee manager Craig Counsell much higher than he does his previous, hand-picked, front-office-groomed first-timer, David Ross.

But this ain’t Joe Maddon and a team with Jake Arrieta, Anthony Rizzo and newcomers Jon Lester, Dexter Fowler, Miguel Montero, Kris Bryant and, yes, David Ross.

It’s at least an uncertain process, if not a specious one to try to quantify the value of a manager in terms of some kind of wins-added value. David Ross didn’t suddenly become an idiot in his first opportunity to manage under normal circumstances from spring training through September; and as well regarded and respected as Counsell is throughout the game, he hasn’t exactly been able to turn water into wine — or even a Brewer into a pennant winner.

Baseball history is filled with examples of Hall of Fame managers who had losing seasons — from Connie Mack (overall losing record) to Bobby Cox (losing records four of his first five seasons across two teams).

It also includes managers with middling reputations or credentials who won World Series because they had lots of really, really good players — from Bob Lemon (1978 Yankees) to Ned Yost (2015 Royals).

That last point is the most salient one for this conversation.

Good, competent management is always important. But good players win games.

Hoyer opened camp this week by saying “the closer’s definitely warming up at this point” when it comes to how close it is to the end of the Cubs’ “offseason.”

And if that’s not a reference to some final stages of negotiations for Bellinger, then fans are back to wishing on prospects instead of stars as they head into play in a largely mediocre division that might be there for the taking with a more aggressive stance.

Especially for a team that added a $177 million shortstop and $68 million starting pitcher a year ago and took another step toward contending.

“We’ve added some really good players this winter,” said Hoyer, who suggested another might be added. 

“I do think we have a lot of young players and some young veteran players that I think have a chance to take real steps forward,” he said. “The most exciting thing for me is I feel like we have a deep roster and we have a deep roster of players that have a chance to continue to get better, and it gives me a lot of hope that we can accomplish this year what we couldn’t last year.”


If Hoyer’s actually willing to send the big-market Chicago freaking Cubs into the season with a platoon of unproven prospect Pete Crow-Armstrong and Michael Tauchman in center field instead of Bellinger and/or who-knows-what combination of role players at third base instead of available Gold Glove free agent Matt Chapman, then he’s playing a dangerous game of hope and upside projections when he should be stepping on NL Central throats.

The biggest problem with that way of thinking is that if he’s wrong, it’s the fans who pay. Again. In more ways than one.