Caleb Kilian is “Not Ready” for the Big Leagues Just Yet
The Chicago Cubs are going to need a fifth starter on Thursday. Jameson Taillon, recovering from a groin strain, will be eligible to come off the Injured List, and I suspect that he is the Cubs’ preference to take that start.
If Taillon isn’t ready, though, it’s a bit hard to say for sure who would take that start. Adrian Sampson remains on the Injured List at Iowa. Javier Assad just pitched yesterday, so he would be on only three days rest. Ben Brown only just got called up to Iowa. Kyle Hendricks is still rehabbing and starts for Iowa tomorrow. Roenis Elias is on the temporarily inactive list, but I suppose that it’s possible the Cubs did that so he could be available on Thursday if necessary. Others in the I-Cubs rotation include Riley Thompson, Chris Clarke, and Nick Neidert. There’s also the possibility of a bullpen day, though no one is going to want that in the era of the limited bullpen. I’m really not sure exactly what route the Cubs would go.
One thing I’m absolutely sure of, though, is that the start won’t be taken by Caleb Kilian.
That would’ve been true for logistical reasons – an optioned pitcher cannot return for 15 days unless there is a new injury – but even if a new injury would’ve afforded a loophole to bring Kilian right back, there’s no way he would get that start after what happened on Saturday.
Kilian came out of the gate wild, out of sync, unable to execute any of his pitches. The Cubs were down 5-0 before he got out of the first inning. The experience was reminiscent of Kilian’s call-up last year to fill in, when his formerly excellent command completely abandoned him, and we were all left to wonder what the heck happened.
When asked what he took from Kilian’s outing, manager David Ross told the Sun-Times: “That he’s not ready. Still got learning to do. Still needs some seasoning.”
Ross is almost never that blunt, and with other fill-in starts assuredly to come this year, it’s fair to wonder if Ross was trying to underscore to his bosses that Kilian should not get the next one (or the one after that).
Which isn’t to say Ross was being unduly harsh. He was just stating a fact; a reality that is true about so many prospects who come up to the big leagues – even multiple times – and need more work. I often talk about the two things I look for when a young pitcher comes up for a debut (career or season): (1) multiple big league caliber pitches, and (2) a sense that the moment is not too big. I think you could argue the big league caliber pitchers are there for Kilian (though he cannot command them), but it’s hard not to feel like the moment – last year and again this year – got to Kilian.
For his part, Kilian tried to make the best of the experience, as an opportunity to learn and be encouraged.
“I had some starts last year where it was rough, but being able to turn it around this time, it’s huge,” Kilian told the Tribune, referring to the 2.1 innings after the first, when he had modest success. “It’s encouraging. I’m staying optimistic about it. … I didn’t just go out there and completely suck. At least I turned it around a little bit. Definitely frustrating, but I’m glad I was able to kind of turn it around the second inning and at least I was competing.”
If that helps Kilian not let this appearance get in his head and derail his season, then I hope he finds as much encouragement as possible.
Speaking of being in his own head, Kilian also told the Tribune that maybe he overthought things.
“The pitch planning and stuff, I haven’t really done as much as I tried to do today,” Kilian said, “so I probably had a little too much going on in my head rather than just going out there and competing with my strengths. So that’s something I can also learn from.”
Not unlike the Cubs’ back-up starter plan for Thursday, I really have no idea what the Cubs are going to do with Kilian long-term. He probably simply rejoins the Iowa rotation and pitches out the year there, hopefully making developmental strides along the way.
I would say there’s an outside chance the Cubs give him a multi-inning relief look at some point, wondering if the velocity might play up further, and maybe he finds more mechanical success if he’s only worried about two or three pitches instead of five or six. The Development List is also a possibility, with a trip to Arizona to work on mechanics.
The reality is that the start to the year for Kilian – at Iowa, and before this disaster of a big league outing – was not good. He was not missing bats whatsoever, which is a worrying sign for a guy with his natural stuff pitching at Triple-A. It tells me the command has been almost nonexistent, which the big league appearance sure seemed to underscore.
I don’t want to give up on Kilian, who still has the bones of a useful big league pitcher. Some guys do have to come up multiple times and struggle before they finally figure out a way to settle in. But until Kilian starts dominating at Triple-A Iowa again, it’s going to be hard to buy back in.