Sutcliffe on Hendricks: He's a winner

CHICAGO -- Former Chicago Cubs pitcher and current ESPN baseball analyst Rick Sutcliffe is a big believer in new Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks.

"There are so many things about Kyle that flash me back to when I first met Greg (Maddux) and when I first met Mike (Mussina)," Sutcliffe said via phone. "These guys don't lose."

Sutcliffe was quick to point out the similarities have more to do with their makeup than their stuff, but it's still some lofty company. One player is going into the Hall of Fame later this week and the other can state a compelling case.

"It starts with ability, of course," Sutcliffe said. "They are better prepared and they're smarter. Kyle is one of those guys."

Hendricks, 24, takes the mound Tuesday night against the San Diego Padres in his second career start, and first at Wrigley Field.

The Cubs named him a starter last week, giving him an opportunity to show what he can do for the rest of the season. It's exactly what could have been predicted before the season: Hendricks would finalize his training at Triple-A Iowa while the Cubs moved their pitching assets to make room for him in the second half. The trade of Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to the Oakland Athletics on July 4 created a spot for the Dartmouth grad.

Hendricks was acquired from the Texas Rangers in 2012 as part of the Ryan Dempster trade and quickly impressed the Cubs. He was 13-4 with a 2.00 ERA in the minors last season and 10-5 with a 3.59 ERA this year at Triple-A Iowa. He last pitched in the Triple-A All-Star game on Wednesday, throwing two shutout innings. If all goes well, that might be his last appearance in the minors.

Sutcliffe believes the Cubs have a keeper.

"If I'm blessed with any strength, I would say it's being a decent judge of character," he said. "He has the same kind of makeup as those guys (Maddux and Mussina)."

Sutcliffe has a unique perspective on the Cubs. While analyzing them from the outside once the regular season starts, he has also been a spring training instructor the past few years at the behest of team president Theo Epstein. Sutcliffe worked closely with Hendricks for five weeks and came away with the same feelings he had about Maddux.

"Back in the day when I read (manager) Don Zimmer's comments in the paper that we could 'pencil in Maddux in the rotation,' I walked into his office and said, 'Forget the pencil, get out the (pen), he's going to help us.' I feel the same about Hendricks."

Hendricks' six-inning, four-run debut against the Cincinnati Reds earlier this month didn't dissuade Sutcliffe from his opinion but rather solidified it. Hendricks adjusted to a tight strike zone and settled in after a rough first inning in which he gave up three runs and struggled with his control. It could be a microcosm of his career. Hendricks isn't going to blow hitters away; he'll need to learn lineups and navigate through them in the same way Maddux used to.

There's no better way to do that than right now for the Cubs. They're going nowhere in the standings, but players such as Hendricks and infielder/outfielder Arismendy Alcantara can get through their peaks and valleys while giving more meaning to an otherwise meaningless season in the win-loss column.

Sutcliffe isn't quite sure how Hendricks' stuff will play. He says Maddux threw 94 mph when he first came up and Mussina got up to 98 mph. Hendricks hits 92-93 mph on the radar gun, a good reason he's not listed among top prospects. Yet he has kept moving up and is now in the majors.

"The guy is a winner," Sutcliffe said. "Remember the pool tournament they had in spring training? He won that. He's good at those video games like Maddux was with Game Boy 100 years ago. Some guys are just winners. Hendricks is one of them."

Sutcliffe believes Hendricks' use of his changeup will be a key. Even though he's not coming down from 98 mph to throw it at 78, Hendricks has plenty of movement, and he will have to master how and when to throw it.

"I saw two kinds of changeups," Sutcliffe said, "the swing and miss when he needs a strikeout, and I saw the one that needs to be put in play. I call it a surrender pitch. I'm not surrendering a hit, but I want this at-bat over with right now."

The most impressive aspect of Hendricks, according to Sutcliffe, is how he might handle high-leverage situations. He sees a guy who will get the out when he needs it the most, even if it isn't always pretty.

"If you watch the catcher's glove," Sutcliffe said, "the tougher the situation, the less the catcher's glove moves. He's got that. He's going to be a good pitcher in this league."