Kyle Hendricks is a wild card for the Chicago Cubs in 2023

As recently as 2020, Kyle Hendricks was receiving Cy Young votes. In that truncated season, he posted a 2.88 ERA and the second-lowest WHIP (0.996) of his career. But within two years, he was sidelined for the season with a shoulder problem that could derail the rest of his career.

Getting it right again has ramifications for both Hendricks and the Cubs. For him, there’s the $16 million club option for 2024. For the Cubs, there’s a chance to once again be serious contenders for the top of the division.

Hendricks is just 33 years old, and despite the past two seasons of wrestling, he has amassed an impressive resume. If he gets healthy again and performs well this year, Hendricks has a good chance that his option will be chosen in 2024. From there, he’ll still be young enough to explore free agency.

But a recent article in The Athletic could cast some doubt on that happening. Hendricks spoke with The Athletic’s Patrick Mooney and made it clear that he has little chance of being ready for Opening Day on March 30. As Mooney reported, Hendricks is weeks away from pitching off a mound, and the capsular tear in his right shoulder sapped his strength, forcing Hendricks to rebuild his shoulder and body strength. There’s no guarantee once he starts pitching from a mound that Hendricks will be able to pick him up as a pitcher.

“You just have to constantly adapt,” Hendricks told Mooney. “We are on the right track.”

The Cubs would like to hope so. They’ve quietly had one of their most successful offseasons in a long time, and maybe even one of the best in the league this winter. But all those good vibes only exist on paper for now.

There are many things that can go right and create a scenario in which the Cubs are legitimate division contenders. There’s no question that the addition of Jameson Taillon should improve the rotation. If Cody Bellinger can hit again — a question mark perhaps as big as Hendricks — then watch out. And that’s not to mention the high-ceiling first base squad of Trey Mancini and Eric Hosmer, or what the burgeoning pool of Major League-level prospects could bring as the season progresses.

It’s still a long jump from going 74-88 in 2022 to competing with the Cardinals and, to a lesser extent, the Brewers. As team president Tom Ricketts called him at the Cubs convention Jan. 14, his team is at a turning point. There’s a different energy to the Cubs organization. A feeling that the painful period of being deadline sellers is over.

“They have taken advantage of their opportunities. Some of them actually got released and have now become pieces for us. Jed saw everything that happened,” Hendricks told Mooney, describing the progress among some of the organization’s younger players. “Now you bring these established, winning-type players who have won their entire lives and have won at the highest level.

“That’s really where it all started when I got here. You just saw great people who were so competitive and loved the game. That’s really the vibe you get from every one of these guys you meet. That excites me a lot. Everyone on the team feels it.”

There are still a lot of variables, making the 2023 Cubs even closer to 2014 or maybe 2015 iterations. Lots of the right pieces are there, but it’s still too lofty to think of them as top-tier contenders.

But that could be where Hendricks comes in. If he can return to anything close to his pre-2021 form, the Cubs would have a starting rotation capable of taking the team far. With Marcus Stroman, Hendricks and Taillon at the top, younger pitchers and role players like Justin Steele, Drew Smyly and Keegan Thompson would slip into roles where they could make an impact, whether in the rotation or in relief. long.

It’s also important to consider that with the defensive changeup gone, pitchers like Hendricks who throw to make contact and give up a lot of ground balls will be even more important. In his best years, Hendricks’ ground ball rate hovered around 50 percent. For the past two years, the highest team averages have been five points lower. Through 84 1/3 innings in 2022, Hendricks’ ground ball rate was around 36 percent, the worst of his career. A healthy shoulder and improved mechanics would likely bring that number closer to his career average of 46 percent.

An improved ground ball rate is a small facet of the big picture, but it’s enough to help get Hendricks back to something closer to the guy entrusted with starting Game 7 of the 2016 World Series. It all hangs on one shoulder. genuinely healthy and able to withstand a full season again. And we’re still weeks away from seeing if his shoulder feels good again or not.

But if he is, Hendricks could be the difference between another year of rebuilding for the Cubs and a return to play in October.