Did you notice, in the waning weeks of the 2022 season, how little Caleb Kilian came up?
There was a time earlier in the season, even before his call-up, that any discussion of internal 2023 starting pitching options for the Cubs would’ve had Kilian at the very top of the list, and I’m not sure – at the time – anyone else would’ve been particularly close. Not only was Kilian very close to big-league-ready, but he’d taken such substantial steps forward in stuff and velocity the preceding year that it was looking like he could be a front-of-the-rotation type.
Yet when we wrapped the season with talk of the Cubs’ impressive volume of starting pitching depth, it was Hayden Wesneski this and Adrian Sampson that and Javier Assad this and so on. Kilian never seriously came up on conversation for a late-season start, and he’s not going to seriously come up in conversation this offseason as a sure-fire depth option for the Cubs in 2023.
You understand why, of course.
Kilian’s 2022 was marked by intermittent, but dramatic, lapses in command and control, and his short stint in the big leagues was a mess. He flashed the stuff, briefly, but it was clear that he was not ready to actually use the stuff he’d developed. That happens in an initial call-up. No biggy. It can actually be an important part of the learning and development process.
But it was actually what happened with Kilian after he went back down to Iowa to work on some things that generated most of the concern: from late June on, Kilian posted a 5.37 ERA at Triple-A, with a decent 26.4% K rate, but a terrifying 14.6% BB rate. There might’ve been some bad luck baked into the batted ball results, but for a guy who came up as one of the most control-oriented pitchers in the minors, it set off alarm bells.
OK, but is a bad big league debut and a bad half-season at Triple-A enough of a reason to so dramatically downgrade a prospect? From “future impact starting pitcher” to “mere depth BEHIND the other depth”?
No. And if my inattention to Kilian over the last few months has led anyone to that conclusion, that’s my bad. Instead, it’s just that the deep struggles made clear that it was going to be a longer road for the 25-year-old righty, and if he were going to contribute in 2023 – still possible! – it was going to come after more work on his body, his mechanics, and his ability to consistently harness his higher-velo/sharper-breaking pitches.
Which is, itself, another reason why it’s so very good that the Cubs have a lot of workable big league starting pitching depth. We can have conversations like this, and talk about having a whole lot more patience with Caleb Kilian, precisely BECAUSE that depth exists.
These types of developments could prove to be huge for the organization going forward. The Cubs can move past Kilian’s struggles and can bring up players like Wesneski and Javier Assad, insert them into the rotation and still put out a competitive roster. The Cubs don’t have to push Kilian if he’s not ready, they can remain patient and address his developmental needs without feeling the need to get him up to the big leagues and fill a spot. If he figures things out, that means more depth. If he doesn’t, it’s not a death knell for the organization. They have others who they believe can perform, and some who have already shown it.
“It’s the true value of depth,” assistant pitching coach Daniel Moskos said. “You don’t know who is going to be a piece, you don’t know what their timeline is going to look like. Just because Caleb Kilian came up and had a rough debut, doesn’t mean he won’t be a piece in the future. It just meant the timing wasn’t right. There’s still development points to go after to make him the successful big-leaguer we believe he’s going to be. But it’s not the end of the world (that he struggled).”
In other words, even though a lot of “depth” has passed Kilian on the pitching depth chart to open up 2023, it might wind up being a very good thing for him, not just for the Cubs.
If the Cubs still believe in Kilian as a future mid-rotation (or better) starting pitcher in the big leagues, but also believe it’s going to take a lot of work to get him there, then you’d MUCH rather he and they be able to engage in that work at Triple-A. Who knows what happens in the short and long-term if Kilian is viewed as the 6th or 7th starter heading into 2023, and is pressed into service because of some Spring Training injuries?
Thankfully, then, the Cubs have a lot of other options in whom they have confidence (and some additions this offseason!), which can then allow them to retain confidence in Caleb Kilian. That, with time and work, he can still get himself to a place where he, too, is at least in that “quality depth” conversation. There’s still a good chance that he can be quite a bit more than that, even if we have to wait until the second half of 2023, or even 2024, to see it.
Oh, and of course: if Kilian were to show up to Spring Training looking fantastic after an offseason of work, it’s not like the Cubs would HAVE to wait until the second half of the season to give him a look. It’s just that it’s a good thing that they have the option.