Sometimes Kyle Hendricks wonders if his career would have turned out differently.
What would have happened had he never donned the Chicago Cubs pinstripes?
“It could have never worked out, obviously,” Hendricks told the Tribune. “Sometimes you see it with guys that get stuck or sometimes you just don’t get the opportunity depending on where a team is at in their process. And then your career life span could basically be over by then and your time is kind of up. I was super lucky.”
Ten years ago, on July 31, 2012, the Cubs made an unknowingly seismic trade, sending starting pitcher Ryan Dempster to the Texas Rangers for two minor-leaguers: infielder Christian Villanueva and right-hander Kyle Hendricks.
Hendricks never has asked Theo Epstein or Jed Hoyer what made them want to include him in the trade. Even now, he’s not sure he wants to know the answer, saying with a laugh, “Maybe I was a throw in. … I don’t want to hear that.”
But the impact of that trade is undeniable. Hendricks became one of the best pitchers in baseball and helped the Cubs finally bring a championship back to North Side. And it almost didn’t happen if Dempster would have had his way a decade ago.
“The Cubs never would have won a World Series had I not gotten traded — you can quote that,” Dempster joked to the Tribune recently. “So you’re welcome, Chicago.”
The anatomy of a trade
Dempster’s phone was blowing up.
Entering the 2012 season, Dempster understood what awaited him at the trade deadline. The rebuilding Cubs needed young assets. He was on an expiring contract and at 35 didn’t fit in to their long-term plans. Dempster’s 10-and-5 rights gave him control of where he could be traded, however.
In the lead-up to news of a trade with the Atlanta Braves eight days before the deadline, Epstein, then the president of baseball operations, informed Dempster the Braves were very interested. Epstein asked the veteran to weigh and process a potential trade because the Braves weren’t going to wait forever for an answer.
But Dempster had a clear-cut No. 1 choice: the Los Angeles Dodgers. It was close to his home in Arizona, and former teammate Ted Lilly was recruiting Dempster to join him in LA. Dempster held firm with his preference despite the Cubs receiving an offer they liked from the Braves.
Eventually, though, the Cubs needed to make a decision and couldn’t leave the Braves in limbo. They quietly consummated the deal, and the Cubs reached out to Dempster, telling him he didn’t need to decide right away and to keep thinking about it. An hour later, the trade leaked.
Dempster had been golfing since 6 a.m. that day, prompting a nap when he returned home. He awoke to 30 messages on his phone, and news of him being traded to the Braves already was online.
Said Epstein in 2012 after the deadline: “And with the nature of technology and social media these days, these things spread quickly like wildfire. Ryan never got the opportunity for more than I’d say an hour to fully contemplate Atlanta with a deal actually in place. I feel for him. Because all of a sudden instead of having time to contemplate it privately, he had everyone telling him what to do, everyone asking him questions about it and it became a nuisance for him.”
Said Dempster recently: “I just felt forced into it. There was this immense pressure and I still had personal family things that I was going through to try to figure it out. And it just felt like it wasn’t the best fit for me.”
The deal with the Braves, which reportedly would have netted the Cubs 22-year-old right-hander Randall Delgado never went through. (Delgado posted a 4.10 ERA in 271 big-league games for the Braves and Arizona Diamondbacks from 2011-18 and currently is pitching in an independent league.)
The Cubs regrouped and reassessed their options. On deadline day, Dempster still didn’t want to give up on Los Angeles, so he told Epstein he would call Dodgers GM Ned Colletti to try to work something out.
Said Dempster: “Ned said, ‘I’m not willing to give up the package they want, you’re going to be a free agent.’ And I was like, ‘I’ll sign an extension.’ And he’s like, ‘What? Why didn’t I know this a few days ago?’ Well you’re knowing it now! So that never ended up happening. The minute that door closes, I said, all right, open it up.”
Epstein and Hoyer wanted Dempster nearby as they worked to complete a trade as the hours and minutes ticked down. And that meant a unique setup by putting him down the hall in an office with a TV on which speculation about his destination was being discussed in real time.
At one point, Epstein and Hoyer stopped by to ask about whether he’d accept a trade to the St. Louis Cardinals. Dempster responded with a sarcastic, “Yeah, right.”
Said Dempster: “Not that I wouldn’t go play in St. Louis. I love St. Louis, but I can’t accept a trade from the Cubs to the Cardinals. That’s just not happening. I can go there as a free agent, I’d be happy to. But a trade’s not going to work.”
When the Texas Rangers emerged as a possible destination, reuniting with catcher Geovany Soto and the team that drafted him was appealing. The Cubs agreed to a deal with the Rangers about three minutes before the deadline. Hoyer stated afterward that a trade with the Dodgers never really was close after many conversations, though he joked he probably had Colletti’s phone number memorized.
Said Hoyer in 2012: “We talked a lot about keeping him, but ultimately he’s a free agent and we felt like the right thing to do was to keep adding talent to the farm system. We said a number of times that we don’t have enough depth in the system and good young players. Now we have a chance to add two guys we like a lot. We took that chance.”
Said Epstein in 2012: “Do we wish that he would have had 12 places that were an ideal destination for him instead of one? Sure. That Atlanta deal we had lined up I felt was an outstanding deal for the organization. Would we have liked to execute it? Absolutely.”
If the Rangers hadn’t come through in the end, Hoyer acknowledged Dempster probably would not have been traded. And thus, no Hendricks.
Said Hoyer in 2012: “You have to scout well to make sure you’re always prepared for anything that will happen, and we felt the pro scouts did a great job. We had a lot of reports, we had guys in the right places, we had information on the right people. I think that is the most important thing. You never know what twists and turns will happen. You can’t prepare as if things happen according to a script. They never do.”
An under-the-radar prospect
Cubs director of amateur scouting Tim Wilken was on his way to scout the Cape Cod Baseball League in mid-June 2012 when he received a call from Epstein.
Epstein had a special assignment for Wilken: Check out the Rangers’ Myrtle Beach, S.C., affiliate for Hendricks’ next start and file a report on the 22-year-old.
“If it were left up to me, shame on me because I had just an OK report,” Wilken said. “I didn’t have an overwhelming ‘acquire him.’ I would have taken him in a deal, but I probably didn’t give him enough credit, control-wise and command. I still had plus (scouting grades) on him, but I think I was a little shy on that.”
Wilken remembers comparing Hendricks to former Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Andy Sonnanstine because of their similar build and the way they pitched with a fringe-to-average fastball. But Sonnanstine didn’t have a good breaking ball and fell off quickly with the Rays, finishing a five-year big-league career (2007-11) with a 5.26 ERA and 82 ERA+ in 132 games (80 starts).
“I probably had that in my memory bank,” Wilken said, “and I was probably not giving Kyle enough credit for his feel for pitching and his control and command of what he did have. It wasn’t wowing stuff other than he threw a lot of strikes and the quality got better. Finesse guys are the tougher ones to see if they’re not 100% on their game. They’re a little bit tougher than the big arms.”
Wilken also was concerned about Hendricks’ “ordinary” curveball and how it might not be a sufficient secondary pitch. The changeup Hendricks threw at the time notably wasn’t the same as the one he uses in the majors.
Hendricks wasn’t the top player the Cubs received in the trade. That honor went to Villanueva, rated Baseball America’s No. 100 prospect and No. 12 in the Rangers farm system entering the 2012 season.
As for Hendricks, good luck finding him on any top-prospect lists. He did not make the top 30 in the Rangers organization by Baseball America before the trade. Hendricks’ most notable prospect inclusion before coming to the Cubs was being rated No. 20 for the Northwest League in 2011.
Said J.J. Cooper of Baseball America: “Here was this pitcher who seemed to have some feel and OK stuff that when you talk about players who are traded, I can look at it one of two ways. One, brilliant, just brilliant, that the Cubs saw something far and beyond. Or the other is that you take a lot of pitchers like that and every now and then one rises to the top. I don’t have an easy answer to that because the thing that stands out about Kyle Hendricks is in this era his success has been done in such a nontypical manner, which I default to give him credit in situations like that.”
Even after the trade, Hendricks didn’t crack the Cubs’ top-30 list until 2014, the year he debuted. Meanwhile, Villanueva slotted in as the team’s No.12 prospect and the industry consensus as the better player acquired in the deal.
Hendricks’ professional career actually began as a reliever. After the Rangers drafted him in the eighth round in 2011, he debuted at short-season Spokane. All 20 appearances were out of the bullpen, mostly consisting of one- or two-inning outings with 36 strikeouts in 32⅔ innings.
“I think the Cubs were really perceptive because they saw something here,” Cooper said. “At the time if you told me, ‘Hey, there’s this pitcher. He doesn’t throw all that particularly hard. He’s never in his career been a strikeout-a-batter-an-inning pitcher after that first season in the Northwest League as a reliever. He’ll never do that again, ever. And oh, by the way, he’s going to be a really good big-league starter.’ I probably wouldn’t have believed it.”
On July 31, 2012, Hendricks had just arrived in Zebulon, N.C., fresh off a four-hour bus ride with his High-A Myrtle Beach teammates, then a Rangers affiliate, to kick off a trip against the Carolina Mudcats.
After dropping off their stuff at the hotel, the team headed to the ballpark. Hendricks knew it was trade-deadline day in the majors, but beyond that the date wasn’t on his radar. As Myrtle Beach prepared to head onto the field to stretch, the clubhouse TVs were tuned in to a breaking-news trade involving the Rangers.
“The TV didn’t show the names,” Hendricks said. “And then out of the manager’s office, he and a couple other guys say to me and Villanueva, ‘Hey, you two, come on in here.’ As soon as they said our names, everyone else in the clubhouse went, ‘Oh, boy, they’re gone.’”
When they entered, Rangers GM Jon Daniels was on the phone to inform Hendricks and Villanueva of the trade and laid out the situation. Oneri Fleita, then the Cubs vice president of player personnel, told both players they would report to High-A Daytona. Because Hendricks already had thrown 130⅔ innings for Myrtle Beach, the Cubs wanted to limit him to roughly 20 innings over the final month.
“It was kind of a weird time because it was this huge change,” Hendricks said. “ Between me and Villanueva, we had to basically get a ride to Daytona.”
The Cubs wanted their new acquisitions to report to Daytona as soon as possible. Fortunately, Hendricks’ girlfriend (and now-wife), Emma, had a car and drove from Myrtle Beach to North Carolina, picked them up and made the eight-hour drive to Florida. The 24-hour sequence was a whirlwind.
It left no time for Hendricks to consider the aftermath of a trade.
“I was young, I had no clue,” he said. “Looking back, I wasn’t aware of the ins and outs of where a team is at in their progression. Texas, they were in win-now mode and getting to the World Series. Luckily, things just happen to work out sometimes. And I think luck is such a huge part of your path and where you end up, and that was definitely a lucky moment.”
A career starts to take off
Hendricks’ introduction to the Cubs spanned 17 innings over five appearances (four starts) with Daytona to close out the 2012 season. He didn’t carry a chip on his shoulder from being traded like some players might.
“I’ve always had that little underdog (mentality),” Hendricks said. “Not that I’ve never gotten respect or anything, but that’s usuallyhow it goes. I really didn’t think of it as revenge or anything. I just was so happy to be playing professional baseball and to maybe see a path for myself. I was like, ‘Just keep getting outs, they traded for you.’ And so I was grateful that someone traded for me. I thought they must have liked something about me even if I wasn’t the big piece of the deal.”
The 2012 season marked Epstein’s first at the helm, and it quickly became clear to Hendricks some of the stark differences between his old and new organizations. While he would see a shift over the next year or so, from the buy-in from minor-league coaches and the staff he would work with as he rose through the ranks, Hendricks still needed to make some non-baseball-related adjustments.
“The Texas organization did an unbelievable job of teaching me how to be a professional, how to be accountable at a young age,” he said. “I came over to the Cubs organization and you just saw there was this huge shift coming in the culture, really — there wasn’t any of that, which was super eye-opening. I came over and I was like, ‘What’s going on?’ ”
Hendricks opened 2013 at Double-A Tennessee. A stellar July capped a strong four-month stretch that produced a 1.85 ERA in 21 starts and earned him a promotion to Triple-A Iowa. He posted a 2.48 ERA in six starts there to close out his first full season in the Cubs organization.
Cubs major-league staff assistant Jonathan Mota, Hendricks’ teammate at Double A and Triple A in 2013 and 2014, remembers Hendricks’ early days in the organization.
“I remember his third Double-A start in Huntsville, Ala., and it was really cold,” Mota said. “He only threw two innings, and Buddy Bailey, our manager, was very successful, very straightforward. And he comes to the mound and says to Kyle, ‘Hey, kid, if you want to pitch in the big leagues, you’re going to have to hit your spot because you can’t just be doing this.’ I remember Kyle saying, ‘I will pitch in the big leagues, Buddy,’ and then he walked away.”
Said Hendricks: “I didn’t even notice that I wasn’t getting the top prospect stuff or anything. I knew I was doing well. I knew I was getting outs and I was pitching well, and I knew when people came into town, I was still pitching well, and I knew they were seeing that. And everybody around me was saying, ‘Hey, if you just keep getting outs, man, there’s nothing you can do or they can do.’ I think it really helped develop my mental state going forward, and it helps me a lot today with what I do, just trying to simplify, stay on the task at hand and control what you can control.”
Said Mota: “I played first base a couple times in 2013. I remember guys would get a hit or rarely he’ll walk somebody and they will get to first base and they’re like, ‘How does he do it? We can’t figure it out.’ I’d tell them, ‘Hey, you’re not the only one who’s saying that.’ It was special playing behind him in the minor leagues, seeing him grow and come in to his own.”
Orioles manager Brandon Hyde worked as the Cubs minor-league field coordinator when Hendricks joined the organization. Hyde first saw him with Daytona in August 2012 before getting another look at Hendricks at Triple A the next season. Hyde recalled wondering whether his stuff would work as a major-league starter.
As the bench coach for then-manager Rick Renteria, Hyde witnessed Hendricks’ MLB debut July 10, 2014, one of the first hints as to what was to come.
“You just thought that, man, we could be pretty good in a couple years,” Hyde said. “I didn’t know we were going to be in ’15. But you could see that we were way more fun to watch and more exciting, and Kyle was a big part of that.”
Said Wilken: “It’s not a shocker in a sense because he had main ingredients going into it, like control, command, feel and upcoming improved body control, which is a big key for me because that helps pitchers repeat their delivery more often.”
Hendricks’ jump to the Cubs might not have happened without Iowa pitching coach Bruce Walton, whom Hendricks described as being instrumental to parts of his development. Walton taught Hendricks how to read hitters’ swings, something he learned from working with Hall of Fame pitcher Roy Halladay in Toronto as the Blue Jays bullpen coach. It took a year or two into Hendricks’ major-league career for reading swings to fully click, which he traces back to Walton.
One big piece in Hendricks’ repertoire that needed to be worked out to successfully make the jump from Triple A to the Cubs involved refining his changeup.
“When I started throwing my protonated changeup more,” Hendricks said, “I really just had kind of a straight, almost to the cut changeup. (Walton) showed me (how to) throw a two-seam grip and pronate the hell out of it and see what you get basically. I started throwing that at Triple A, so that opened more avenues for me.”
Said Wilken: “He always had a good changeup. It was a borderline plus. His changeup was more of a fade. And then his second changeup (at Iowa) worked the other way. That was his biggest get-over and not get hurt with it.”
A magical run
Everything built toward an incredible 2016 season.
Hendricks, in his second full season, finished third in voting for the National League Cy Young Award. He became the first Cub to lead the majors in earned run average in 78 years, posting a 2.13 ERA in 31 games (30 starts). Hitting on top draft picks Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Javier Báez and striking a deadline deal in 2013 that featured Jake Arrieta transforming into a Cy Young winner all played a role in leading the Cubs to their first World Series title since 1908.
Hendricks’ emergence as an elite starter in many ways made him the linchpin of what came to be.
“That’s the part that really kind of baffles me or that it still doesn’t make all the sense,” he said. “And getting further away from it is just how much happened so quickly for a lot of us young guys and that group that really came together.”
Schwarber, now with the Philadelphia Phillies,caught five of Hendricks’ starts.
“It was easy for a catcher to call those games because if he shakes, it’s because he knows what he wants to do,” Schwarber said “I think more of the game for the catcher is trying to make sure you don’t get any shakes. It’s fun because you just sit back there and you don’t move your glove. That’s the easy part. The best part is just learning about how he thinks going through the different times through the order.”
Said Hyde: “When Kyle took the mound you were going to win. Because you knew he was unbelievably prepared. You could feel like you just chalk it up. It was going to be seven innings of two runs or less.”
Hendricks’ postseason performance took him to another level. Between the 2016 NL Championship Series and the World Series, he made four starts and surrendered just two earned runs in 21⅔ innings.
“He’s the definition of pitching,” said David Ross, Hendricks’ teammate in 2015-16 and the current Cubs manager. “The way he carries himself is probably my favorite thing about him, just the absolute nonemotional, nonaffected pitcher and probably one of the best I’ve ever been around with handling all that stuff.”
Said Schwarber: “The more satisfying part is knowing that it’s a good guy. He works hard. He does his homework. He’s prepared every single time he takes the mound and that ’16 season it was just a combination of everything at once hitting it all out there.”
Game 7 of the World Series represented Hendricks’ second time in the 2016 postseason he started a series-clinching game.
“I really wasn’t nervous before Game 7 in the sense of I’ve been way more nervous in some regular-season games,” he said. “When I just know I don’t quite have it, when I know it’s going to be a battle when I’m off and I’m just going to have to figure it out out. You just know you’re not quite secure in your stuff and what you have. But at that time, I felt like I was throwing really well. I was genuinely excited to go out there.”
After holding Cleveland to two runs (one earned) in 4⅔ innings, Hendricks had to watch the Cubs try to hold a two-run lead through five innings.
“When I was taken out, I went and did my arm care real quick and then I was up in the clubhouse, I was down in the dugout, I was up and down,” he said. “Then I was in the dugout for the Rajai Davis homer, and I was like, I’ve got to get out, I’m in the wrong place. So I was pacing all over, I couldn’t keep it together.”
The Cubs’ 8-7 win in 10 innings ended Cubs fans’ suffering and secured the legacies of players such as Hendricks, whose World Series championship ring sits tucked away at his home.
“I’m in the middle of my career and I hear people in the stands still say, ‘Thank you so much for 2016′ or ‘you’re a legend, we love you so much,’ and I’m like, whoa, I’m not done yet,” Hendricks said. “But it is incredible to just know that that accomplishment is always there.”
What comes next
Hendricks is searching.
The last two seasons have not been on par for what the right-hander expects of himself or what the Cubs need from him. Since the start of 2021, Hendricks’ ERA sits at 4.78 in 48 starts and below the league average with an 89 ERA+.
Hendricks, currently on the injured list with a right shoulder strain, hopes to get back on track whenever he returns during the final two months. He could be a free agent after 2023 if his club option is declined and knows he isn’t executing at the level he needs.
Going forward, Hendricks is focused on reshaping his mental approach. He doesn’t believe he needs to reinvent himself.
“I think he’s at a point in his career where he may be interested in adding a different type of fastball, maybe a cut to it or adding a slider,” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. “But when he’s healthy and at his best, he’s still pretty dang good.”
Hendricks has messed around throwing a slider during bullpens and anticipates continuing to tinker with the pitch, perhaps incorporating it into his repertoire next year.
“You always have to keep revamping and adjusting and adapting and a slider could be a part of that,” Hendricks said. “But honestly, I see when I go out in the games where I execute right with my stuff and piece it together the right way, I have enough pitches.”
Ross called it a “powerful thing” that Hendricks “just continues to be himself.”
“I still feel like he’s a sinker-changeup-type guy that’s going to mix in a breaking ball now more,” Ross said. “He learned to pitch up in the zone a little bit more later in his career. He’s also stubborn at times, which is a good thing. He stays true to himself, good or bad, and knows what got him here. He’s going to stick to that.”
Said Cooper: “I’ve talked to scouts. I’ve talked about players since then, coming up through the minors, and they’ll be described as being a little Kyle Hendricks-like, like this guy has potential to have command-control like Kyle Hendricks. Those guys usually haven’t turned out. It’s really hard to do this, and he’s done it very well.”
Hendricks’ legacy already is cemented in Cubs history as one of the franchise’s most successful pitchers. And it all traces back to a phone call 10 years ago in his manager’s office in North Carolina and Dempster heading to Texas.
“I prided myself on giving everything I got when I was on the field, and I pride myself on loving the fans in Chicago,” Dempster said. “And to get traded for somebody who ends up being a better teammate, a better player, and brings the World Series to the fans in Chicago, I mean, that’s a treat.”