Kyle Hendricks, last remaining 2016 champ, agrees Cubs have found their new Jon Lester

Kyle Hendricks received a unique introduction and fitting ovation at the opening ceremony of the Cubs Convention.

“You need someone to start Game 7, to end a 108-year curse?” boomed Cole Wright, Marquee Sports Network host and emcee for the evening. “Who’s it going to be?”

It could only be Hendricks — not just because he started Game 7 of the 2016 World Series but also because he was the only player from that curse-breaking team still on the Cubs’ roster.

“It’s definitely strange, in a way,” Hendricks said in a conversation with the Sun-Times. “It just goes to show that the turnover is so quick in the game these days. I just look at it from a grateful perspective. I have so much gratitude for the organization and for the city just for being able to be there for that long.”

Last season, Hendricks had talked with fellow 2016 World Series winners Willson Contreras and Jason Heyward about their dwindling ranks. Then, the offseason hit. The Cubs released Heyward, who joined the Dodgers on a minor-league deal with a spring-training invite, and Contreras signed with the Cardinals in free agency.

Hendricks, coming back from a capsular tear in his right shoulder that sidelined him for the last three months of the season, is aiming to start throwing off a mound by March 1. That timeline makes it unlikely that he’ll be back by Opening Day. And if he begins the season on the injured list, there won’t be any representatives from the 2016 roster.

“Being back at the convention, that’s obviously one of the best parts, just hearing the fans and their stories and how much they still love and connect to it,” Hendricks said of the 2016 World Series. “But the even better part of that, honestly, at the convention, was seeing the fresh faces and seeing the fresh, renewed energy, and just seeing where we’re going now.”

Those faces include shortstop Dansby Swanson, starting pitcher Jameson Taillon, center fielder Cody Bellinger, catcher Tucker Barnhart, reliever Brad Boxberger, first baseman Eric Hosmer, and (although he wasn’t at the convention because his signing wasn’t finalized) first baseman/designated hitter Trey Mancini.

When the Cubs went through their last rebuild, veteran pitcher Jon Lester’s signing signaled to Hendricks that the club was turning a corner and ready to win. Now, Hendricks agreed, Swanson could be this cycle’s equivalent.

“He is the No. 1 guy that you refer to and when you say ‘winning,’ ” Hendricks said. “I mean, you see what he’s done throughout his entire life, really. And just talking to him, you see the passion, you see how much he loves doing what he does.”

The Cubs even harnessed the parallels to recruit Swanson. They produced a video about Lester’s decision to sign with the Cubs in December 2015, a decision that helped propel them into a period of five playoff trips in six years, three NLCS appearances, and, of course, that World Series title.

Swanson recounted at his introductory news conference: “He kind of just said, it was the hardest decision that he ever made, but looking back on it now, it would have been the easiest one.”

When the Cubs signed Lester, Hendricks had just wrapped up his rookie season. Now, he has a decade of experience under his belt, including an ERA title, an 81-pitch “Maddux” and a franchise-leading 11 postseason starts.

With longevity comes adjustments. Hendricks said at the Cubs Convention that he found his arm path was getting so long behind him that as he rotated to throw, the motion put stress on the front of his shoulder. Before he began his throwing program Dec. 1, he focused on building his strength and making his arm path more efficient.

“In my mind, it’s not the end of the world if he’s not ready for Opening Day,” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy told the Sun-Times this month, “because it’s such a long season that getting him to feeling great and being at his best is our No. 1 priority.”

Hendricks has labored through the last couple of seasons, but the Cubs know the kind of impact he makes when he’s at his best. They had a front-row seat to his 2016.

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