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5 for '14: Who will be the surprise?

Cubs spring instructor Rick Sutcliffe described Kyle Hendricks as having the "it" factor. AP Photo/Morry Gash

The surprise of the 2014 Chicago Cubs isn’t even on the roster yet. And, no, it’s not top prospect Javier Baez. Baez is no surprise anyway, but a player who doesn’t make any of the top prospects lists does qualify.

Right-handed pitcher Kyle Hendricks flies under the radar around the baseball world but not with the Cubs. Recently, Cubs spring instructor Rick Sutcliffe described him as having the “it” factor for a pitcher. While that wasn’t very specific, it said a lot. The guy knows how to pitch.

He should know a lot. He went back to school this offseason and graduated from Dartmouth where he threw from 2009-2011. He went 15-12 with a career 4.87 ERA before being drafted in the eighth round by the Texas Rangers. There was really nothing special about Hendricks at the time. He didn’t throw particularly hard and didn’t exactly have a true out pitch. But he had success anyway. The Cubs traded for him when they sent Ryan Dempster to the Rangers in July of 2012.

He blossomed with the Cubs last year at Double and Triple-A. His 13-4, 2.00 ERA combined at Tennessee and Iowa was impressive. He gave up just 142 hits in 166 innings pitched. He walked just 34 batters all season. But that was in the minors. Can the change-of-pace hurler do it in the majors? Even after his fantastic 2013 season, he still didn’t make the top 10 of Cubs prospects heading into this year. It only put a chip on his shoulder.

He’s not a perfect pitcher, but here’s the thing to like about him: he learns and gets better. He’s done that everywhere he’s been. Even in spring training he started a little slow. He was uncharacteristically wild in his first start with nerves getting them best of him. But he learned and adjusted. By the time his spring ended with the major league team, he was gutting the mighty Los Angeles Dodgers regular lineup with a beauty of a three-inning stint. Three innings in the spring don’t make a career but they are a sign.

It’s unclear when Hendricks will make his Cubs debut, but pitching is such a wild card that a need could arise for him to be called up at any time. Even if it’s for one start.

Expect Hendricks in Chicago before season’s end. When he gets here, he might never leave if the Cubs allow him more than a chance token start. Then, he might finally make one of those prospects lists. But it will be too late to be called a prospect. He’ll be a major league pitcher and the surprise of 2014.