Column: Hayden Wesneski pitches well again in Chicago Cubs’ 3-0 loss. What does that mean for Kyle Hendricks’ future?

As the Chicago Cubs kick the can down the road regarding Kyle Hendricks’ return, Hayden Wesneski has shown he deserves to remain in the rotation.

Wesneski pitched six strong innings Wednesday against the San Diego Padres but failed to get any run support in the Cubs’ 3-0 loss at Wrigley Field.

Dylan Cease dominated the Cubs over seven innings, allowing only an infield hit and striking out 12 while tying a career high with 113 pitches. The Cubs finished the homestand 3-3 and went 9-7 in a 16-games-in-16-days stretch after winning the first four.

Hendricks is scheduled to make his third minor-league rehab start Sunday for Triple-A Iowa, and manager Craig Counsell wouldn’t commit to keeping Wesneski in the rotation even for the time being after Wednesday’s loss.

“Wes pitching effectively helps us no matter what,” he said. “We want to get healthy of course, and hopefully we’re always trending toward getting healthy, but he’s pitching well and that’s going to help us no matter what. We’ll kind of figure that out as we go. Good pitchers are going to help us win games.”

True enough, and in a perfect world the Cubs would have room for Wesneski and Hendricks when he returns, which wouldn’t be until May 17 at the earliest.

Wesneski, who has a 1.59 ERA, said his confidence is high and that his performance “confirms I should be here in the big leagues.” Whether that’s in the rotation or bullpen is the question.

Hendricks has been a mainstay of the Cubs rotation since he came up in 2014, but his ineffectiveness this season has put the decision-makers in an untenable spot. Hendricks threw 4⅓ innings Tuesday for Iowa, allowing one run on five hits with six strikeouts in an 85-pitch effort.

The relatively high pitch count suggests Hendricks is strong enough to return. But unless the Cubs go to a six-man rotation or replace Wesneski, there’s really no spot. Counsell made rookie starter Ben Brown available in the bullpen this series but didn’t use him, meaning Brown also could be used as a starter on the upcoming trip to Pittsburgh and Atlanta, which begins Friday at PNC Park.

The Cubs haven’t listed their probables for the Pirates series. Jameson Taillon, Javier Assad, Justin Steele and Shota Imanaga have sealed the top four spots in a rotation that ranks second in the National League and third in baseball despite Hendricks’ numbers. Wesneski seems like a perfect No. 5 or 5a if you include Brown as 5b.

A pitcher can be on a rehab assignment for a maximum of 30 days, so the Cubs can’t keep Hendricks with Iowa forever. Sooner or later they’ll need to make a decision. The best-case scenario is a healthy Hendricks gets back into the rotation and returns to form. The worst-case scenario is that he continues to struggle as he did in his first five starts, in which he posted a 12.00 ERA.

It’s a delicate situation, much like the ones President Jed Hoyer faced with Jake Arrieta and Jason Heyward. Arrieta was given his unconditional release in August 2021, ending a reunion that was a mistake in the first place. Heyward was shut down at the end of June 2022 with right knee inflammation and told in early August he would not return to the team.

Unlike Heyward, Hendricks’ contract isn’t so gargantuan that he would be considered untradable, though the Cubs might have to eat some of it in any deal this summer. Heyward had a year remaining at $23 million in 2023, and the Cubs were still obligated to pay his $20 million signing bonus over four installments from 2024-27. No one would take that.

Hendricks could still be a valued pitcher on a contender if he can rebound. He’s making $16.6 million in the final year of his contract.

As perhaps the most respected player in the organization and the last survivor of the 2016 championship team, Hendricks is a special case for Hoyer. But this is a business, and Hoyer has made difficult decisions before involving beloved Cubs players. He traded Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Javier Baez during the great summer sell-off of 2021 and fired manager David Ross after last season.

Meanwhile, the Cubs go into their off day Thursday with a much-needed chance to catch their breath.

They had no chance Wednesday against Cease, who was untouchable for seven innings, striking out 12 of the 24 batters he faced and allowing only a third-inning infield single to Yan Gomes that deflected off Cease’s glove.

Cubs hitters struck out 15 times against Cease and two relievers. They’re averaging 2.8 runs over the last 12 games while hitting a combined .195 with 109 strikeouts, though Counsell didn’t agree with an observation that the offense has been struggling.

“On the road trip, maybe,” he said. “This is a baseball season. You’re going to face some guys that are pretty good. We faced a guy that was pretty good today. That’s part of what a season entails.”

Well, it could always be worse. The Cubs were still 5-7 over that poor offensive stretch and remain tied with the Milwaukee Brewers for first place in the National League Central at 22-16. They’ve managed to keep their heads above water despite subpar starts from Ian Happ (.225, one home run) and Dansby Swanson (.209), who sat Wednesday.

Swanson’s right knee “has been bugging him,” Counsell said. Seiya Suzuki should return this weekend, but Swanson’s knee could make his status iffy.

Happ said he feels as if he’s coming around, and Pittsburgh has always been a great place for him to hit. The Cubs need Happ and Swanson to produce to be their best.

“The pitching staff has been great,” Happ said. “They’ve been holding us together. The offense will come around. We’re going to make some noise like we did earlier in the year. It’s just a matter of time.”

The sooner the better.