MESA, Ariz. -- Chicago Cubs pitcher Kyle Hendricks had a breakout half-season after making his major league debut in July of last year. An eighth-round pick of the Texas Rangers in 2011, Hendricks was acquired in 2012 on trade deadline day for pitcher Ryan Dempster.
Hendricks was the organization's minor league pitcher of the year in 2013 when he went a combined 13-4 with a 2.00 ERA split between Double and Triple-A. Last season he went 7-2 with a 2.46 ERA -- best among rookie eligible pitchers -- in 12 big league starts after being promoted, giving him a leg up for a rotation spot this season.
Earlier this week at spring training, Hendricks sat down to reflect on his time with the Cubs and to look ahead:
Jesse Rogers: After making your debut and having some success at the major league level, what was the offseason like reflecting back on it all?
Kyle Hendricks: It was definitely different, I'll say that. I think it comes more with being older, not necessarily making it. Every year you learn more about yourself and your body and what you need to do to be ready. Coming into last spring training I knew 100 percent I needed to win a spot, so I came in 100 percent full-bore ready to go. This spring I'm still trying to win a spot, but I know I don't have to be 100 percent ready to go coming into it. I'm still performing, trying to win a spot, but without being 100 percent. I think that will help me later in the season. I'll be healthier and stronger later through it.
JR: I understand what you mean. You still have to win that spot again, but you don't have to impress the powers that be every single moment now. You can hold back so you're stronger months from now.
KH: No doubt. At least that's how you feel, but most of the time I'm not thinking about the powers that be because that's something out of your control. Focusing on what you can do is still the best way to go about it.
JR: So I have to give Rick Sutcliffe credit. He was really high on you last spring, and I know he helped you over the last 12 months or so. How so?
KH: Tremendously, to be honest. He hung out with me last year, followed our group around and talked to me a lot, just little things about the game. He watched some of my bullpens and gave me little tips here and there. Or pickoff drills. Everything, really. He knows what he's talking about, and I'm just lucky that he took a liking to our group, in particular, and hung around us. This year he watched a couple of my bullpens already. The first one he was standing there the whole time telling me "don't even worry about what the ball is doing." You know as a pitcher you're always worrying about that, but he's right, in the first 'pen of spring training it's all about how you feel, mechanically, on top of the mound. Don't worry about what your pitches are doing.
JR: I know we talked about this last spring, but I'm going to give you a chance to say "I told you so" or whatever. Those prospect rankings that you never cracked must have put a chip on your shoulder. Nothing against [former Cub] Arodys Vizcaino, but he hadn't pitched in two years and was in the Cubs' top 10 while you were the organization's minor league pitcher of the year and were nowhere to be found. C'mon, that had to stick with you.
KH: Nah, not really. The word "prospect" for a pitcher is put on guys who have "stuff" -- who throw hard and have good stuff. I don't necessarily have the fastball or the nasty stuff. For me, not being a "prospect," I kind of agreed. I get it. It's fine. I didn't worry about it. It didn't affect anything I really did. I had confidence in myself from the beginning, so I knew coming in here if I did my thing and stayed true to myself and just got guys out I would get a chance. I mean that's it. If you get guys out long enough you're going to get a chance.
JR: Usually we don't talk about money, but as an eighth-round pick in 2011 it's not like you got the signing bonuses that the top guys get. What was it like last year on that Friday or second Friday after you were called up to get a big league check? Because I know no one is getting rich in the minors.
KH: It was big [laughing]. When you're in the minor leagues you don't make anything. You can barely pay rent. That's what those signing bonuses are for. But the money side of it you can't think about, either, because if you love the game you just go out there and want to be on the mound. Having said that, sure, it's a nice perk.
JR: Did you do anything special with the check or the money? Frame it? Buy a car?
KH: No, I actually didn't do anything with it.
JR: That's typical Hendricks there.
KH: Yeah, it is typical [laughing]. I just got it and went back to worrying about pitching.
JR: OK, let's talk about video technology and how you use it. The Cubs think you can be even better utilizing it at the major league level where it's more sophisticated.
KH: When I'm in the video room I'm not watching myself, I'm watching the batter. I don't watch my mechanics. If I'm going bad and hit a rough spot I might take a look. "Am I throwing that bad? Does it look off?" Other than that, I don't watch myself because I'm so much of a feel guy that I might see something that throws me off, and I don't need to see that. So I watch the hitter. In the offseason there is an app that they give us on our iPad and you can go on there and see all the hitters, all the at-bats that they've ever had, so just sitting around I just watch guys that I know I'm going to face just to kind of refresh my memory. Just staying sharp so you can recall it on the mound.
JR: Your best pitch is the changeup. I feel like that's a pitch you're just always going to rely on, where you're not worried about hitters seeing it too much or whatnot. "Here it is, try to hit it." Is that about right? Or are you trying to find another go-to pitch?
KH: For me, taking the next step doesn't mean adding another pitch. It's always just the constant grind of trying to make my pitches perfect. The four that I have, including the changeup, I know I can get guys out with them. But I'm always trying to get the feel and know the movement of them. And being able to spot all four and know where they're going. It will probably never happen to perfection, but that's what you're always striving for.
JR: After your half-year, is your confidence where you know you can be doing this in the rotation for the next decade?
KH: Definitely. I think so. I always thought that coming up. It's not something that it just hit me because I got called up. I saw guys on television that relied on changeups or sinkers and hit spots and got guys out. [Greg] Maddux, obviously. That's all he did.
JR: What about the competition? Those rotation spots are valuable. Only five for every team. What's that like with your friends?
KH: There are no hard feelings, ever, between all of us. Because we are all teammates. But like you said, there are a limited number of spots. We have so many guys that could fill those positions, so at the end of the day everybody is just concerned with what they have to do to get better. Including me. Whoever makes the team at the end is up to someone else.
JR: Have you had any conversations with Jon Lester? I noticed a few guys have yet to approach him. He does have a presence to him.
KH: Yeah, he does. I have noticed he's a quiet guy that goes about his work. I'm kind of the same way, so we haven't really talked too much at this point. Spring is very individualized -- so many guys trying to do their own things.
JR: What about the thought of playing for a potential winning team in Chicago?
KH: Yeah, the big league team, whether I'm on it or not, is going to be good. We're going to win a lot. It started way before this offseason. It started with the guys coming up through the system. And what they've implemented through the system. They've implemented winning ways now, whereas when I first got traded over here you could still tell they just didn't care so much about winning. You could just feel it, almost. And now the mindset is 100 percent flipped. Everyone at every level is expected to win.
JR: Was there a moment in the offseason when you thought "OK, man, we're serious now?"
KH: Definitely Jon Lester. Joe Maddon, yeah, was huge, but the players are who win it. When you sign a guy like that, who has won World Series, you're like, "wow, they're ready."
JR: Have you gotten used to the Chicago experience, because you are a California guy.
KH: Yeah, I'm excited to see it when we have some winning ways. Even when losing they were supporting us, but if we win I think all of us are extremely excited to see it.
JR: When were you the most up and the most down in your career?
KH: The most up probably was in Double-A Tennessee, not when I was called up like you might think. I was just zoned in for such an extended period of time. That season was special. I would go through my five-day routine and I just knew I was going to go out and pitch well. If I gave up one run, I was mad. It's one of the best feelings in the world. Everyone, I think, at this level has felt that at some point. I was lucky it was an extended period of time. As for being down, near the beginning of the year last season at Triple-A, I was struggling. The results weren't awful, but I just didn't feel right, and I didn't know what the heck was going on. My family came to visit. They dropped everything and came in and took my mind off of it. That's why you have friends and family.
JR: Was the thought that you were on the cusp of making it to the big leagues in the back of your mind? Remember, Javier Baez was kind of in the same boat and also struggled to start the year.
KH: Definitely, it was consuming me a little bit at the beginning of the year. I was thinking if I don't go out and dominate every game, I'm not going to get that chance. Those are the toughest moments. When you can taste it, it's right there. That's hard. I put too much pressure on myself for the first three to five games, but I saw my family and calmed back down.
JR: Why do I think if Kris Bryant is sent down at the end of this camp, that's not going to affect him. He seems impenetrable to that stuff.
KH: He is. That's how good of a guy he is, how mentally tough he is. It's kind of unbelievable to see. It seems like everyone would go through that, but he seems like the one guy that won't.
JR: How good can he be?
KH: He can be the best player in baseball. Hands down. I've never played with a better player. The biggest thing that goes along with his talent is the type of guy that he is. That's what impresses me and all his teammates. We're all impressed how humble and quiet he is.
JR: OK, final thing. Because I get asked, do you have an apartment waiting for you in Chicago because you think you have a spot locked up, or do you wait because it's bad luck? How do players handle that?
KH: You wait. Maybe get a better feel in March. You have options lined up and you've looked. The point I'm at, it is kind of bad luck because you don't want to commit to something. Injury could happen, anything can happen. But you do have to make plans in some way.