So It Turns Out Caleb Kilian Was Dealing With a Knee Issue Last Year

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So It Turns Out Caleb Kilian Was Dealing With a Knee Issue Last Year

Chicago Cubs

At this time last year, Caleb Kilian was, I think inarguably, seen as the top pitching prospect in the Chicago Cubs’ system. Not only was he coming off a 2021 regular season that had seen him dominate at Double-A (and be traded for one of the best rental bats on the market), but the stuff kept ticking up as the year went on. He was so good by the end of the season that he went to the Arizona Fall League and seriously turned heads. We all saw his literally perfect performance in the AFL Championship Game – he looked incredible!

Then 2023 happened. It didn’t start out all that bad, with Kilian heading to Triple-A for the first time, battling a little bit of control problems – surprising for him, but there was such an elevation of his stuff and his velocity that it was easy to explain away (he’s just learned how to command his new stuff) – but generally getting good results. And when there was a chance to give him a look-see in the big leagues, the Cubs jumped.

Kilian started out looking impressive against the Cardinals – remember how hyped we were? – and then it seriously deteriorated from there. His control completely evaporated, his second two big league starts were disastrous, and when he went back down to Iowa, things really didn’t get much better. It was bizarre and concerning, and the explanations were always pretty vague. There was the “stuff” explanation. There were mechanical things about his lower half. Always non-specific – which is fair, but it made an evaluation hard to perform reliably.

So, Kilian’s star faded, rapidly and significantly. Sure, some of what happened on the rankings side in the Cubs’ farm system is because the Cubs saw some tremendous pitcher strides and acquired several more, but it is wild to think about how LITTLE we think about Kilian just a year after he was THE guy. Despite being at Triple-A, on the 40-man roster, and having big league experience, Kilian is never mentioned as one of the current depth options for the starting rotation, let alone a future mid-rotation guy.

I understand the reasoning for that – he’s gotta show that he figured things out and can bounce back this year at Iowa – but I suppose we have probably been too down on the possibility that he COULD bounce back.

Thanks to Sahadev Sharma for putting the topic back on the radar with the reveal that the “lower-half” stuff last year for Kilian? It was a dang knee injury:

From Sharma:

“My mechanics were changing throughout the year,” Kilian said. “I had some knee tendinitis so I think that may have a little to do with it. I started landing more open. But I’ve been working on a few mechanical changes and it seems to be improving quite a bit.”

The left knee issue wasn’t too bad to start the year, but as he got deeper into the summer, it continued to get worse. It never got to the point where Kilian thought he needed to shut things down and he continued to pitch through it, but it eventually became clear that he was compensating for the issue. Not only did Kilian feel off, but the information the Cubs could collect through technology also showed his front foot wasn’t doing what it had in the past.

It was enough that he wound up having to get a PRP injection for it, so it’s not like this was just an after-the-fact explanation. We just didn’t know he was dealing with it at the time.

Now the vague descriptions make a whole lot more sense. Any time a guy is dealing with a physical issue that isn’t quite bad enough to lead to an Injury List stint, especially for a prospect, the outside descriptions tend to be vague. There are competitive reasons for that, but it’s also just that you’re often talking about younger guys who haven’t necessarily dealt with nagging issues before at a highly-competitive level where they are trying to win, trying to develop, trying to make adjustments, etc. It’s hard. And a nagging knee problem would make it much harder.

This does NOT mean that, now over the knee tendinitis, that Kilian is going to bust out of camp looking exactly like the guy he was in the AFL or whatever. I imagine it’s much more complex than that, and the road to getting things right is probably longer than physical rest. But it is good to know that there may have been a FACTOR that (1) contributed to Kilian’s bizarre loss of control, and (2) has now gone away (or at least is being managed after the PRP injection).

It is also potentially good that Kilian dealt with so much adversity last year, because sometimes that helps with the development process. Learning to deal with failure. Learning when your body is working against you. Knowing that you are capable of getting out big league hitters, but also knowing what you need to work on.

With more information now on what Kilian dealt with last year, I would say I am both more optimistic about his season ahead and more interested to see how he looks in Spring Training. Although he is not being included in the fifth starter competition, Kilian at his best may have more upside than anyone else involved. He may just have further to go to get there. Getting the knee issue worked on was a start.

Author: Brett Taylor

Brett Taylor is the Editor and Lead Cubs Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @BleacherNation and @Brett_A_Taylor.