Kyle Hendricks Once Again ‘Fifth Starter’ as Cubs Announce Rotation

Update: It happened earlier than I’d predicted, but Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester have been flipped in the rotation. Arrieta will start Sunday, April 9 in Milwaukee and Lester will start the Cubs’ home opener on April 10. Barring any future changes (which is far from a guarantee, this sets up the Lester-opening-in-Boston scenario I worked out below.

We already knew that Jon Lester would be the Cubs’ Opening Day starter and that Jake Arrieta would follow him in the order. And the tea leaves had been telling us for some time that Brett Anderson would round out the order. The assumption, then, had Kyle Hendricks slotting in third and John Lackey fourth.

But then Joe Maddon said they wanted Lackey to face the Cardinals in that opening series, which meant bumping Hendricks back one spot. Of course, that would also mean having both lefty starters back-to-back, which wasn’t the preferred setup. So now we’re talking about having last year’s ERA leader starting 2017 in the same spot he started last season, as the Cubs’ fifth starter.

On the surface, this is the opposite of putting Kyle Schwarber at the top of the lineup to get him as many at-bats as possible. After all, the last man in the rotation would presumably get the fewest starts over the course of the season. But will it really work out that way?

Probably not.

Both recent history and common sense tell us that Hendricks is still going to have just as good a shot at the 200-inning goal he recently set forth. Much has been made of the Cubs rotation’s extraordinary run of health last season, but both Lackey and Jason Hammel were shelved or limited by different maladies. Then you had the skipped turns due to rest and whatnot. That all resulted in a fairly even distribution of starts, with everyone falling between 29 (Lackey) and 32 (Lester).

Hendricks logged 30 starts (with one more relief appearance) and 190 innings, both of which were third on the team. It figures that he’ll be able to do at least the same this season, particularly in light of all the talk of hybrid starters, more rest, and even a six-man rotation from time to time. Given his relative youth, lack of injury history, and throwing style, Hendricks figures to be skipped fewer times than his colleagues.

Then there’s the matter of the schedule, which affords more days off this season than it has in the past. That additional built-in rest will allow Maddon to reshuffle the rotation to better leverage various matchups throughout the year.

As I see it, a flip-flop could occur as early as April 13, shortly after the Cubs’ third off-day in their first eight games. After Lackey’s second start, which should come during the ring ceremony game at Wrigley on 4/12, Hendricks could move up to face the Dodgers in the series finale. Although I could also see Maddon putting Anderson out there against his former team, in which case they could swap the latter spots in the last two games of the Brewers series.

Since bumping Anderson back would mean going lefty-lefty, you’d want to flip Lester and Arrieta for their respective starts on either the 15th and 16th (home against Pirates) or the 21st and 22nd (at Reds). Where this really starts to come together, though, is at the tail end of the month. If we follow this reworked rotation of Arrieta, Lester, Lackey, Hendricks, Anderson, the former Cy Young winner would start on 4/26 at Pittsburgh.

Which means…I’ll give you time to consult your schedules…Lester and Lackey start the first two games against the Red Sox in Boston. Boom, mark the tape.

This has to work out. How can you pass up having three of your starters face their former teams — and Lackey would get to do it twice — in the first month of the season? I mean, that’s paramount in a manager’s thought process, right? Well, if it ain’t it oughtta be. And though it’s too far out to project, the All-Star break should allow Arrieta to be among the first three starters when the Cubs open the second half against the Orioles.

Man, it’s just too perfect.

And that’s why it probably won’t happen. There are too many variables, too many butterflies flapping their wings in China and causing storms in Chicago, for things to work out this smoothly. What is very likely, though, is that Brett Anderson’s spot is skipped now and again and that Hendricks eventually works his way up into at least the third spot.

Of course, it’s all academic once the season really gets rolling, which will be the case here very soon.

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