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MESA, Ariz. — For the player the Chicago Cubs call The Professor, the experiment is long over. Or as Jon Lester says of Kyle Hendricks, “The training wheels are off.”

Hendricks, now married and making his first millions in the big leagues, is no longer just the quirky soft-tosser who went to an Ivy League school. He’s an established mainstay of the Cubs rotation and a player trying to put it back together after an injury-plagued 2017.

“I’ve learned so much about myself,” Hendricks said over the weekend. “This is my peak time. The amount that I’ve learned is amazing. You think you know everything, but every year in this game I’ve learned about myself.”

Hendricks has had an every-other-year type of odyssey so far in the big leagues — if you consider a 3.03 ERA an “off” year. That was his mark last season after leading all starters in 2016 with a nifty 2.13. In reality, the second half of 2017 was more like the old Hendricks. His 2.19 ERA ranked third in baseball behind Corey Kluber and Justin Verlander. It’s becoming obvious what Hendricks needs to do to be elite.

“The big thing is him staying healthy,” Lester said. “The training wheels are off, per se, as far as an organizational aspect. They limited him in ’15 and ’16. Last year he had stuff going on. Now it’s just pitching.”

The “stuff” going on last season was a sore tendon in his pitching hand that sidelined him for about seven weeks. But Hendricks won’t use it as an excuse. In his mind, his first-half ERA of 4.09 was about mechanics, not injury.

“I could not get into my mechanics both last year and in 2015,” Hendricks said. “Something wasn’t right.”

A shoe problem at the end of 2014 led to some uncertainty heading into 2015 — a switch from Nike to New Balance helped, but Hendricks struggled, and there were doubters who wondered whether he could actually be successful throwing in the mid-80s. Lester, however, never doubted that the maturity in Hendricks’ game would show up.

“I got a front-row seat for it,” Lester recalled. “He went from comfortable and being OK to being uncomfortable and being really good. It’s a hard step to take. He did that in 2015. It’s really cool to see him take that and go off on it.”

Catching coach and game planner Mike Borzello agreed, pointing to a time when he challenged Hendricks by telling the young pitcher he could either be a journeyman fifth starter or, perhaps, find something more. Being “uncomfortable” meant not just relying on what got him to the big leagues and learning to follow a game plan, even if it was asking him to do something he was used to. Once Hendricks took to it, everything changed.

“He went to Dartmouth,” Lester said with smile. “Immature people don’t go to Dartmouth.”

Then came 2016.

Hendricks dominated as the season progressed, eventually winning the ERA title before he famously dueled Clayton Kershaw in Game 6 of the NLCS that season and started Game 7 of the World Series.

“It is still mind-blowing,” Hendricks said. “It’s hard to fathom or put into words. I dreamed of being in the big leagues, but to lead the league in ERA and pitch like that, I never would have imagined that.”

He’s in an even better place now, after getting married, settling on a $4 million contract for 2018 and even being invited to an exclusive event: the Shohei Ohtani sales pitch.

“It was eye-opening,” Hendricks recalled. “Seeing how that whole process worked.”

No, it wasn’t veteran Jon Lester or team leader Anthony Rizzo that Cubs brass asked to attend their meeting with the Japanese star last fall — it was the mild-mannered Hendricks. Theo Epstein wanted someone who could articulate what the Cubs do for their pitchers, including the unique game plans put together by Borzello. There was one problem: Hendricks was on his honeymoon. He and his new wife were enjoying the sun in Bora Bora when they opened their laptop.

“[Epstein’s] email started with ‘My wife is going to kill me for this,’” Hendricks said, laughing at his boss’ acknowledgement of the faux pas of asking him a work question during his honeymoon.

Fortunately, the meeting took place on the day Hendricks landed in Los Angeles after their vacation. The Cubs didn’t sign Ohtani, but the whole experience was another signal to Hendricks that he wasn’t just an employee trying to keep his job, he was part of the core of the Chicago Cubs.

Confidence is a big part of baseball, and Hendricks has never had it more than over these past couple of years — both on and off the field.

“Confidence can help a lot,” Hendricks explained. “It does depend on the personality you have. I do like to be settled. Getting married is very settling, and obviously the contract gives you a little bit of security. … All of it solidified what these guys have been telling me, just to be me and it can be successful.”

His manager sees the same thing everyone else does.

“He’s really confident where he is right now,” Joe Maddon said. “He’s overcome some difficult moments and made adjustments.”

Hendricks is leaving no stone unturned. He wants to make all 32 starts this year, and he wants to develop beyond what you see on the mound.

“To reach the top of the game, it is health, being consistent, handling the bat even,” Hendricks said. “If you want to be that top-of-the-rotation guy, you want to be left in there for that third AB. Even fielding my position could be better.”

More than anything, Hendricks will always have his brain to help him out. Lester is amazed at how he goes about a game plan.

“I can literally sit there with the scouting report in front of me and call every pitch he’s going to make,” Lester said. “And then he makes it.”

Armed with a catalog of knowledge on hitters he didn’t possess in previous years, combined with the confidence of knowing he’s been an elite pitcher in the past and now a settled home life and good health, Hendricks is ready for another season among the elite arms in the game.

“He can be that guy,” Lester said. “He already has been.”

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Biggest winners, losers and moves we’d still make this MLB offseason

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Two of baseball’s big four free agents are off the board. Two remain. With the World Series ancient history and the first pitch of the 2021 MLB season still months away, we’ve reached this offseason’s unofficial midway point.

While we wait for the rest of the hot stove action to unfold, we asked ESPN’s Bradford Doolittle, Alden Gonzalez, Jesse Rogers and David Schoenfield to weigh in on the biggest winners, losers and surprises so far, along with the moves they want to see before spring training arrives.

Has anyone done enough to catch the Dodgers, or is it still L.A. and then everyone else at the top of MLB right now?

Doolittle: The Dodgers remain the team to beat but teams like the Mets and Padres have closed the gap. L.A. has yet to re-sign or replace key free agents like Justin Turner and Enrique Hernandez, while the Mets and Padres have had comparatively aggressive offseasons. That said, there is plenty of offseason left for the Dodgers to re-establish a more comfortable buffer between them and everyone else.

Gonzalez: I still think the Dodgers are the best team in baseball, but I would bet the field in large part because a slightly inferior team can undoubtedly beat them in a short series (the Braves, you’ll remember, should have last year).

At this point, the Dodgers, Padres, Mets, Braves, White Sox and Yankees are a notch ahead of everybody else; any one of those teams can realistically win it all in 2021.

What separates the Dodgers is their ability to continually churn out elite talent from their farm system. It prevents them from having to be uber-aggressive in supplementing their roster during the offseason and also grants them the flexibility to do so. At the moment, they seek a right-handed bat — a search that could inevitably lead them right back to Justin Turner. But only Mookie Betts is currently under contract beyond the 2022 season (though Cody Bellinger and Walker Buehler will be expensive through arbitration by then). If they’re willing to blow past the luxury-tax threshold this year, they could add someone like Trevor Bauer or another star via trade and get under soon enough. As with Betts last year, they can take a team that might already be the best in baseball and make it significantly better.

Rogers: The Dodgers, after an eight-year quest to win a championship? Someone absolutely could dethrone them. Have you noticed the team just down the road? The Padres can do it. The Braves took L.A. to an NLCS Game 7 in October. And in the AL, there are several contenders, including the Yankees and White Sox. The hangover that recent champions have suffered in attempting to repeat opens the door. Then again, someone is going to repeat as World Series winners at some point. So don’t bet too much against them.

Schoenfield: Yeah, hard to believe we haven’t had a repeat World Series winner since the Yankees won three in a row from 1998 through 2000. As a comparison, the NBA has had five repeat champions since then, the NFL and NHL one apiece. So repeating is difficult no matter the sport.

Still, the Dodgers are the team to beat and I think will be incentivized to prove their dominance over 162 games. Given the Padres’ moves, however, even a ninth straight NL West title is no lock as I see those two teams clearly 1-2 across MLB, with the Braves, White Sox, Rays and Yankees a step below.


Looking at on-the-field moves only, which team is the biggest winner of the offseason so far?

Rogers: The Padres. Starting pitching is still the name of the game. Adding Yu Darvish, Blake Snell and Joe Musgrove sets them up not just for 2021, but for several years beyond. The team will need to jell with some new faces but Jayce Tingler proved he knows what he’s doing in the shortened 2020 season. Don’t overthink it, the Padres have won the winter so far.

Schoenfield: While the team that “wins” the offseason doesn’t always actually win the offseason — see AJ Preller’s disastrous first season as Padres’ GM when he acquired Matt Kemp, Justin Upton, Wil Myers, James Shields and Craig Kimbrel — and the Padres won three fewer games.

I’m going with the Mets though, especially if they can sign Francisco Lindor to a long-term contract. As much as I like what the Padres have done, the Mets have added Lindor, Carlos Carrasco, James McCann, Joey Lucchesi and Trevor May, and Marcus Stroman (who accepted the team’s qualifying offer) counts as well. Plus, losing Robinson Cano’s $21 million salary due to a PED suspension is arguably a good thing as well.

Doolittle: To me, it’s the Mets. The club acquired a young superstar in Lindor, turning a fan base rife with cynicism into one that, for the time being, is brimming with hope.

Gonzalez: I’m going with the White Sox. While their other AL Central competitors basically cut costs, the White Sox capitalized on an opportunity to add to a thrilling mix of young players by adding the best reliever available (Liam Hendriks) and one of the game’s most reliable starting pitchers (Lance Lynn). Now they have a deep, talented pitching staff to complement a dangerous lineup featuring Tim Anderson, Luis Robert, Yasmani Grandal, Jose Abreu and others. And look around the division. The Indians lost Lindor and Carrasco, the Tigers remain in the thick of their rebuild, the Royals — surprisingly aggressive with the additions of Carlos Santana, Michael Taylor, Mike Minor and Greg Holland — aren’t yet talented enough, and the Twins haven’t done much of anything to augment a roster that was only one game better than the White Sox during the shortened season.


Which team is the biggest loser of the offseason so far?

Doolittle: The Cubs’ offseason has been pathetic and it’s hard to see it getting much better. It’s not that there didn’t need to be some form of a shake-up, but for Chicago to suddenly start operating like a small-market team, it’s terrible. So much goodwill has been squandered. It’s not that the Cubs can’t weather this for a couple of years before ramping back up the payroll, because they can and that’s probably the shape all of this will take. But the core of that championship team was beloved on the North Side and now it’s forever going to feel like a lack of aggression closed that contention window sooner than it needed to happen. That’s true even if the top-to-bottom ennui in the NL Central keeps the Cubs in the 2021 division race.

Rogers: Loser is a strong word, but the Cubs have to be near the top of the list. Dumping Darvish just as they unlocked his greatness is a huge loss. It won’t take much to win the NL Central, but the Cubs have backed up to the pack. And the unraveling isn’t over.

Gonzalez: The Rays won two-thirds of their games, got within two victories of a championship, and followed that up by … trading Blake Snell, losing Charlie Morton and adding Michael Wacha, who is a half-dozen years removed from consideration as a legitimate difference-maker. The Rays will still find a way to be good, either now or soon after, because that’s what the Rays do. But they were very clearly in a window to win it all and now that’s undoubtedly gone. This was an offseason when they should have been adding to this roster, not subtracting from it. And while trading star-level players before they get too expensive is nothing new for the Rays, it doesn’t make it any less sad when they do so. It’s a problem that goes beyond just this franchise, of course.

Schoenfield: I get that Cleveland had to get something for Lindor before he left for free agency, but while Andres Gimenez and Amed Rosario are both major league players, I don’t see much upside in either one — and they had to throw in Carrasco as well. That is two huge losses from a good team, while the White Sox continue to make additions (the Twins haven’t done much either, so Chicago is looking like the clear favorite in the division).


What is one under-the-radar move that could pay off big this winter?

Doolittle: Jhoulys Chacin has kind of tumbled off the table the last couple of years, but when you look at his Statcast numbers, there’s no obvious reason he couldn’t revert to his 2018 form, when he was a league-average workhouse for Milwaukee. In a Yankees rotation that could use someone to provide some stable, bulk innings, he could be really valuable for that club. Or maybe he gets cut in spring training. Anyway, signing Chacin could be big for the Yankees because of what he could do for the rest of the roster as much as what he produces himself. And he’ll be another go-to guy in the clubhouse who helps defray some of the spotlight from his more famous teammates.

Gonzalez: The Nationals getting two cost-friendly seasons of Josh Bell without giving up much in return. There’s a lot of value to be had in players who underperformed through such an unconventional season, and Bell might be one who simply reverts to what he was before then. The last time a full season was played, in 2019, Bell batted .277/.367/.569 with 37 homers and116 RBIs, finishing within the top 5 percent of the sport in average exit velocity. Then came the 2020 season. His adjusted OPS fell by 59 points, his launch angle was cut in half, his strikeouts shot up — basically, Bell was bad in a way he never had been. If he finds his way again, the Nationals — desperate for both a first baseman and a middle-of-the-order bat when the offseason began — could end up with one of the offseason’s best bargains.

Rogers: Archie Bradley joining the Phillies. A lot has to go right for Philadelphia to make the postseason in a loaded NL East, but none of it will happen without a better bullpen. Bradley gives them that. Blowing leads is such a downer. Just ask the Phillies of recent years. Bradley is key to their success.

Schoenfield: The Padres’ signing of Korean infielder Ha-seong Kim got a little lost in the midst of the Darvish and Snell trades, but he has a chance to be an impact bat, probably as the starting second baseman (he played shortstop in Korea, but I think he may be blocked at that position). The four-year, $28 million contract (plus a $5.25 million posting fee) could end up being a bargain.


What has surprised you most so far?

Doolittle: The Braves are just so close to being able to go toe-to-toe with the Dodgers, the fact that they haven’t been more aggressive at landing a middle-of-the-lineup power hitter to replace Marcell Ozuna (or re-signing Ozuna) is troubling. Failing to fill that hole would not just leave the Braves behind the Dodgers, it would leave them roughly on the same level with the Mets and Nationals in their own division.

Gonzalez: That despite the frustratingly slow pace to free agency, top-of-the-market players have actually done as well or, in many cases, better than projected. George Springer got $150 million; D.J. LeMahieu got the $90 million contract he was looking for (though it was spread out over six years); Liam Hendriks attained an $18 million average annual value; and James McCann secured a four-year contract worth more than $40 million. It’s almost February, and less than half of the top 20 free agents — as ranked by Kiley McDaniel — have signed. That, however, is not as surprising as players actually attaining commensurate value this offseason, which is … telling.

Rogers: The Giants not doing more. They had a sneaky-good year in 2020 and have some emerging stars but they are destined for third place, at best, without some upgrades. And that’s probably the case for the next few seasons. Their retool might be ahead of schedule but it’ll be at a standstill with the Padres and Dodgers so loaded unless they make some bigger moves.

Schoenfield: The Yankees finally signed DJ LeMahieu, but haven’t added to the rotation, haven’t added a reliever and are still apparently planning on Gary Sanchez as the starting catcher. I get that LeMahieu was the top priority and maybe the dominoes start falling, but in what looks like a soft AL compared to the top of the NL, I’m surprised the Yankees haven’t been more aggressive in a slow market.


Now that DJ LeMahieu and George Springer have signed, when will Trevor Bauer and J.T. Realmuto come off the board?

Doolittle: Bauer is a big question mark to me, which makes him a pretty big unknown when it comes to figuring out the current pecking order across the majors. I have no idea when he’ll sign. As for Realmuto, I’d guess he’d sign before Bauer, if only because the Phillies really need to get him back in the fold in order to know what they’re trying to be this season. And I still think he’ll end up back in Philly.

Gonzalez: Whenever they get the type of deal they want. It’s that simple. Maybe it’s in the next week or so, now that most arbitration cases are settled and teams have a firmer grasp on what their payroll commitments look like. Or maybe it’ll have to wait until owners have a better handle on when the season will begin and when fans will be in the stands so that revenue streams can be projected more accurately. Bauer and Realmuto have that luxury, as two players significantly better than their peers at two of the most valuable positions in the industry. Their talent transcends need.

Rogers: Bauer is a wild card, but he’s not the type to sign on the eve of spring training. He’ll want to jump in with his new team and get acclimated before that. He’ll sign on or before Feb.1. Expect Realmuto to do the same, unless he goes back to the Phillies. Then it might take a week or so into February.

Schoenfield: We’ve seen several big free agents in recent years not sign until spring training has already started — Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, J.D. Martinez — so it could be late February before we see them sign.


Which team is most in need of a big move between now and spring training?

Doolittle: There is no clear reason why the Red Sox should be taking such a passive approach to their offseason. They were terrible last season but the projections for the roster as-is put them very much on the perimeter of playoff contention. And the rotation is a shambles, especially given the uncertainty of how many innings they can expect from Chris Sale. To me, luxury tax concerns are not a good reason for this team to not be in heavily on Bauer.

Gonzalez: The Angels. So far they’ve added a closer (Raisel Iglesias), a shortstop (Jose Iglesias), a catcher (Kurt Suzuki), a lefty reliever (Alex Claudio) and a starting pitcher (Jose Quintana) on one-year commitments totaling $23.25 million. It’s good in that they’ve addressed basically all of their needs without tying up their payroll or extracting from their farm system. But their starting rotation still has a lot of questions and their bullpen isn’t deep enough. If they’re serious about putting a legitimate contender around Mike Trout — who, by the way, will turn 30 this year — then they need to use that flexibility to get bigger difference-makers for their pitching staff.

Rogers: I mentioned the Giants’ issues earlier — and I would have picked the Blue Jays if not for a flurry of recent activity — so let’s go with the Phillies. They’re just not good enough. A return of Realmuto would help, but so would another starting pitcher. Maybe they can get in on the Bauer derby late. That would elevate them to the Braves/Mets/Nats category.

Schoenfield: I’m not counting J.A. Happ as a big move, so I’m still waiting for the Twins do something interesting to keep up with the White Sox — re-signing Nelson Cruz, in particular. No, he won’t continue mashing forever, but he was the only hitter in the lineup who didn’t fall off in 2020 from that record-setting team of 2019. They need Cruz or somebody similar (Marcell Ozuna?). You would think a team that has lost 18 playoff games in a row would want to go all-in, but the Twins seemingly have been content to go about 88% in the past couple of years.


What is one move you would make now if you were a GM?

Doolittle: Sign Trevor Bauer and let him pitch every fourth day. But I’d try to get creative with the contract structure to protect myself. Something like one-year, $40 million for 2021 with a couple of mutual options after that. Or just a straight one-year deal. Or a clause where if he makes it to, say, 40 starts, it triggers two more guaranteed years. Whatever. I just want Bauer to start 40 or more times. I don’t care who it’s for, but the Angels or Giants make the most sense to me. Maybe doing this would cost me my GM job, but that’s fine. I’m a writer anyway.

Gonzalez: Put Bauer in Toronto, have him front a talented-yet-spotty rotation and make him one of the key building blocks for a young roster that is brimming with talent. A rotation with Bauer, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Nate Pearson to go with a lineup featuring Bo Bichette, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Teoscar Hernandez and the newly signed George Springer might just be good enough to go toe-to-toe with the Yankees in the AL East.

Rogers: Go all-in on another rebuild on the North Side of Chicago. As is, the Cubs aren’t winning anything, anytime soon. That could mean trading Javier Baez, Anthony Rizzo or Kyle Hendricks along with Kris Bryant. It’s hard to see them threading the needle of both competing and retooling their roster, something they’ve stated publicly they’d like to attempt. Getting things in order for another run after the introduction of a new CBA might make the most sense.

Schoenfield: Spend the money, Brian Cashman. You’re the New York Yankees! Sign Realmuto and trade Sanchez. And if Realmuto wants to play somewhere else, sign Bauer. Just make sure his locker is not next to Gerrit Cole‘s.

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Chicago Cubs’ Kris Bryant not having as much fun as before

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After intimating as much over the last year or so, Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant admitted he isn’t having as much fun playing baseball as he used to.

Bryant, 29, spoke to Red Line Radio, a Barstool podcast, and was asked if there was joy for him on the field.

“At times, no,” Bryant responded. “It really got to me sometimes. The stuff I was hearing. The first trade rumors (in 2018) that started to pop up really got to me. I find myself (thinking) ‘Man is this even fun anymore? Why did I start playing this game?’ Because it was fun.

“There’s a lot of other stuff involved. You make a ton of money and fame and all this. You have to get yourself back to why I started playing.”

Bryant is set to become a free agent after next season after settling on a contract with the Cubs for $19.5 million for 2021. He’s been the subject of trade rumors as he and the team haven’t been able to come to an agreement on a longer term deal. He’s also heard criticism for his play, perhaps for the first time in his career. That prompted the former MVP to sound off at the end of the 2020 season.

“I don’t give a s—,” Bryant said at the time. “I really don’t. That’s a good answer. I’m over it. Sometimes I go out there and go 4-for-4 and it’s not good enough for some people, so I don’t give a s—.”

Bryant hit just .203 last season but battled injuries and was hardly the only Cub that struggled in 2020. He’s actually had a couple years of some nagging ailments which may have helped prevent him from returning to his MVP form.

Bryant is the only player in baseball history to win college player of the year, minor league player of the year, rookie of the year and MVP in four consecutive seasons, from 2013-2016. But the last few years have been a struggle as he’s become somewhat of the poster boy — fair or unfairly — for the Cubs’ offensive struggles, especially in the postseason.

On the podcast, Bryant recalled the joy of his dad picking him up before he reached home plate after he hit his first home run as a kid. The six year veteran wants to find that happiness in the game again, though he indicated there are more important things going on in the world right now.

“I found myself sitting there, ‘I don’t have that joy right now,'” he stated. “I’m trying all I can to get back to that place. This year was really rough for me personally, just stat wise. I still had a good time (despite COVID protocols and struggles). Making the most of a terrible situation.”

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Kansas City T-Bones renamed Monarchs in move to honor Negro League team

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Kansas City T-Bones of the independent American Association are being renamed the Kansas City Monarchs after the team that played in the Negro Leagues.

The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum signed a licensing agreement with Mark Brandmeyer’s MaxFun Entertainment, owner of the minor league team.

The original Monarchs were founded in 1924 and won the first Negro League World Series in 1920. The team played in the Negro National League from 1920 to 1931 and the Negro American League from 1937 to 1961, with independent stints from 1932 to 1936 and 1962 to 1965.

“This exciting partnership celebrates Kansas City’s rich baseball heritage and becomes an important extension of the work we’re doing to educate the public about the history of the Negro Leagues,” Negro Leagues Baseball Museum president Bob Kendrick said in a statement Thursday. “We are thrilled that the proud legacy of the great Kansas City Monarchs will take the field again and look forward to sharing our story through a myriad of opportunities made possible through this historic alliance.”

A museum satellite exhibit is planned to travel with the team, which intends to establish a Monarchs youth academy for baseball and softball.

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