Cubs Sign Jim Henderson, Which Could Get Hairy

Unless John Lithgow is reading this, I’m guessing the target audience for that titular pun is somewhere between five and six of you. When it comes to the Cubs picking up reliever Jim Henderson, though, I bet the interest is more widespread. Like, probably 15 readers deep. Setting self-deprecation aside, this is one of those wholly Cubbish moves we’ve come to expect from this front office. Which is to say they’re picking up an injury-plagued pitcher with high-leverage experience on a bargain deal.

You may remember Henderson as the man who saved 28 games for the Brewers in 2013, or perhaps as the reclamation project who made 44 appearances with the Mets this past season. His 4.11 ERA (FanGraphs lists it at 4.37) wasn’t phenomenal by any stretch, nor did his 4.83 FIP offer any suggestions that he was a victim of bad luck, but we’re only talking about 35 innings of work.

More encouraging is Henderson’s 10.29 K/9 and his not-awful 3.60 BB/9, both of which fall pretty closely in line with his career averages. There’s also the fact that, despite his advanced age (he’ll be 35 in October), Henderson still has three years of club control left because he only debuted in 2012 after six-plus seasons in the minors.

Speaking of, some of the minor league scholars among you may remember Henderson from his days as a Cubs farmhand. We’re talking deep cuts here, man. The team originally acquired the righty from the Nationals in the 2006 Rule 5 draft and he spent 2007 and 2008 seasons at AA Tennessee and AAA Iowa. A shoulder injury led to his release and he eventually caught on with the Brewers organization.

There’s something to be said for a guy who’s willing and able to fight through setbacks and claw his way onto a major-league roster, let alone become a closer. I mean, yeah, it was only the Brewers, but they’re still pretty much a real team. Having a history of injuries is fine as long as it remains just that, history. But in Henderson’s case, I tend to believe that objects in the rearview mirror may appear closer than they are.

Shoulder injuries limited him to only 11.1 innings in 2014 and he failed make it back to the majors the following season. Then there was the two-month DL stint in the middle of last season due to tendinitis in his right biceps. While that could be totally unrelated to the previous issues, it’s a troubling track record on which Henderson continues to run laps.

Neither arm troubles nor age are helpful when it comes to velocity, and Henderson has seen an appreciable dip in that department. His 93.3 mph average fastball is decent, but it’s not quite the 95 he was throwing a few years ago. And when your heater comprises 82% of your repertoire, even a slight drop can mean big things.

For a pitcher to be successful, he needs to either miss bats or keep the ball in the yard. Henderson’s swinging-strike rate dropped from around 14.5% for his career to only 9.9% last season, which tells us he didn’t generate many whiffs. And though his 13.2% HR/FB rate wasn’t much higher than the league average for relievers (12.0%), his overall fly-ball rate of 54.1% is scary as hell (league average: 34.2%). That led to a 1.80 HR/9 mark that was roughly 80% higher than the average for relief pitchers.

Lest I leave you with a grim picture here, I’ll remind you that is just a minor-league deal that has opt-out clauses on March 29 and June 1. If, that is, Henderson makes it that far. And who knows, he may well put it together and be an important part of the Cubs’ bullpen depth his season. That’s the beauty of a move like this that bears virtually no risk to the team.

Plus, the dude rocks a pretty sweet beard.

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