Chicago Cubs: Cool, calm Kyle Hendricks embracing the target in 2018

(Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images) /
Chicago Cubs
(Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images) /

Soft-tossing right-hander Kyle Hendricks has no qualms regarding the target on his team’s back heading into 2018. In fact, he welcomes it with open arms.

When the Chicago Cubs won their first World Series in over a century, Kyle Hendricks was there. He took the ball on the biggest stages of the postseason. First, he pitched the team to its first National League pennant since 1945. Then, he took the ball in Game 7 of the World Series on the road, doing his part to give the Cubs the chance to rally and win a title.

Knowing this, it hardly comes as a surprise that Hendricks isn’t sweating the pressure outside pundits are putting on Chicago in 2018. After revamping the coaching staff and bringing in a primo free agent in Yu Darvish, it’s World Series-or-bust for the Cubs this year.

Hendricks, coming off a 3.03 ERA campaign will look to continue his incredibly consistent start to his career. More important, though, will be avoiding injury. The right-hander totaled just over 139 innings last year after tallying 190 in 2016 and 180 the year prior.

A larger body of work a focus for Hendricks

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Hitting that innings total is a chief concern for Hendricks, who somehow remains one of the more underrated starters in the National League – despite a career 2.94 ERA after 99 starts in a Cubs uniform.

"“It’s just consistency for me,” Hendricks said. “Last year was a one-time thing for me, hopefully. I feel good where I am now. It’s always been a goal of mine to be that consistent guy, get the innings and get that 200 number. It’s a big number for starters. It’s a goal of mine, and I think I can get there.”"

In 2016, the Chicago Cubs rotation was historically good. Anchored by reigning Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta and two Cy Young finalists in Hendricks and Jon Lester, the staff plowed through opposing lineups for pretty much the entire regular season. At the back end, John Lackey and Jason Hammel more than held up their end of the bargain, as well.

"“It feels very similar [to 2016], but on the other hand, you have to move forward,” Hendricks said. “We’ve learned a lot about ourselves the last two years. It’s different. We have to know we’re here now. This is a new year. Every year, the journey is different.”"

Never found their groove last season

Hendricks hits it right on the head in those remarks. As dominant as the Chicago starting five were in 2016, each and every one of them struggled at different points last year. Lester looked like age was finally catching up to him. Arrieta failed to control his breaking pitches consistently and an aforementioned Hendricks injury kept him from finding a groove till after the All-Star Break.

Lackey made a habit of throwing batting practice and, until adding Jose Quintana mid-season, Chicago relied on Mike Montgomery and Eddie Butler for regular starts. It’s nothing against the latter pair, but they’re hardly who you want to trot out there when you’re chasing championships.

Despite the injury, Hendricks was overall quite effective last year when he did take the ball. A 144 ERA+ evidences that, while not as dominant as in his Cy Young-caliber campaign, he was well-above league average in his body of work.

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Confidence is king

With four years under his belt on the North Side, Kyle Hendricks can make the case for being named Opening Day starter – fairly easily, too. With confidence – and the stuff to back it up – this Ivy League hurler is comfortable, embracing the target on his back and ready to silence the doubters.

"“I think I’m just more myself,” Hendricks said. “Through the years, Joe and the front office, they’ve given me the luxury and told me to be myself and ‘be you.’ You don’t get that in a lot of places. I think I’m finally comfortable in that — being myself, doing my routine, knowing that what I do has the ability to work. When you put the work in and see the results, it just makes you more confident.”"