Apropos of yesterday’s discussion of the Cubs’ developmental methodology changes throughout the organization, you could probably point to several Cubs prospects as *THE* breakout prospect of the year. Maybe it’s a guy who went from off the radar to top 15 status in the organization with an explosive second half (Nelson Velazquez). Maybe it’s a guy who was largely a talented unknown because of the pandemic and wound up the pitcher of the year in the system (D.J. Herz). Maybe it’s a guy who is the top prospect in the system – and was before the season – but who climbed from a top 100 type overall to a clear top 25 guy in all of baseball (Brennen Davis).
Or maybe it’s a guy who wasn’t even in the organization when the season started, who was thought by many to be the secondary piece in a midseason rental trade, and who so improved his pitch arsenal by the end of the year that he’s got folks wondering just how quickly he debuts with the big league team in 2022.
It’s that last one that MLB Pipeline chose for the Cubs on its list of the Breakout Prospects of the Year for every organization:
RHP Caleb Kilian – Acquired from the Giants in late July as part of the Kris Bryant trade, Kilian reached Double-A for the first time in 2021 and held batters to a .205 average over 100 1/3 innings. Kilian, who struck out 112 and pitched to a 2.42 ERA, finished his campaign with a strong stint in the Arizona Fall League and helped lead Mesa to a title with six perfect innings in the championship game.
It’s pretty hard to argue against Kilian, given how fundamentally different our perspective is on him now than it was on July 30 when the Cubs first acquired him from the Giants. (Which is not to ignore that he was kinda already breaking out in the first half before the trade, which is undoubtedly why the Cubs were targeting him in the first place. It’s just that he went to another level late in the year.)
Watching him pitch in the Arizona Fall League championship game was eye-popping. You can’t take too much away from any one outing, but you can *WATCH* the guy and see superlative stuff. Premium velocity and movement, great pitch pairings, and completely befuddled hitters in a top prospect league.
Kilian, 24, figures to open the season in the Triple-A Iowa rotation, and almost anything could happen from there. If the improvements he showed from August on into the Fall League have held steady, then he’s going to own Triple-A batters. And if that happens, the Cubs are probably going to want him up in the big league rotation sooner rather than later to see how it plays, and how he adjusts.
That doesn’t mean he’s a lock to reach – much less stick in – the big league rotation in 2022, but it does mean that it has become completely plausible that he comes up in May or June and right away looks like a steady contributor with upside. I want to see him actually do it at Iowa before I’m full-in, but the switch that seemed to flip for him in the Fall League – the velo gains, combined with the spiked grip curveball, combined with using the pre-tacked MLB baseball – has me as optimistic on him as any starting pitching prospect the Cubs have had since Kyle Hendricks was making his way up eight years ago. (NOTE! I’m only comparing the perception of them as prospects. I am not comparing the pitchers – they are very different – and I am certainly not placing expectations on Kilian of becoming a front two starting pitcher within a few years.)