Cubs’ Caleb Kilian, Jason Heyward questions linger after roster moves

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Kilian, Heyward questions linger after Cubs roster moves originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

As expected, the Cubs put left-hander Drew Smyly on the 15-day injured list because of that right oblique strain he suffered in Saturday’s start, and he could miss a chunk of time beyond that given the nature of such injuries.

The Cubs also activated outfielder Jason Heyward from the COVID-19-related IL Wednesday after being sidelined for 15 days.

Neither move was considered exactly seismic as roster moves for fourth-place teams on June 1 go.

But among the five moves the club announced Wednesday, those two were the most significant because of what might come next.

Smyly’s injury comes near the front end of a stretch of 11 games in nine days, spreading thin a group of starters that already was down another lefty with Wade Miley’s shoulder injury.

The upshot is that top pitching prospect Caleb Kilian — who has a 2.06 ERA in nine starts at Triple-A Iowa — remains in play for a debut this weekend as the Cubs keep as many options open as possible while navigating a 40-man roster crunch.

Kilian, who was scheduled to start for Iowa Tuesday, has had that start delayed as the Cubs weigh how much they have to stretch the bullpen this week and whether they can afford a bullpen day or likely short starter in one of Saturday’s doubleheader games, with young pitchers Keegan Thompson, Matt Swarmer and Justin Steele scheduled for three of the next four days.

The Cubs started Swarmer in a major-league debut Monday, and after an impressive six innings, he gets another start Saturday when the Cubs play a second doubleheader in a week, this time against the Cardinals.

Kyle Hendricks’ five-inning start Wednesday might have made a Kilian debut Saturday more likely because of the bullpen question.

When the game went extra innings, that certainly made it more likely — especially when Mark Leiter Jr., who has made three spot starts this season, was needed for the 10th.

As for Heyward, the 40-man roster crunch is raising the stakes on another slow start to the season (.208 average, .551 OPS).

The Cubs already have the debut carousel spinning on a season that’s essentially a four-month look-see/tryout for possible spots on Jed Hoyer’s “next great Cubs team.”

Heyward has $41.5 million left on his $184 million contract that runs through next season, and the Cubs already gave his right field position to Seiya Suzuki when they signed the star Japanese free agent to that five-year, $85 million deal in March.

Heyward was in the lineup in right field Wednesday night, two days after Suzuki went on the IL because of a sprained finger.

Manager David Ross said he expects to rotate some of his outfielders through the corner spots, especially with Suzuki on the IL, with no plans to move exciting rookie Chris Morel out of center field — where Heyward opened the season platooning.

The Cubs would rather try to recoup some of Heyward’s remaining contract if they can find a buyer for the right package to make that work.

But unless something unforeseen loosens up that roster crunch and/or Heyward goes on a tear, decision time could loom sooner rather than later for the 2016 champion, clubhouse leader and five-time Gold Glove winner.

For now, Heyward’s activation cost rookie Nelson Velázquez a return trip to the minors after his big-league debut this week.

The Cubs also activated right-hander Michael Rucker from the IL after a turf-toe injury, and he pitched Wednesday’s seventh.

Wednesday’s fifth move underscored the 40-man crunch, with the Cubs recalling the injured Manny Rodriguez (elbow) from the minors so they could clear a 40-man spot by moving him to the 60-day IL (and start paying him big-league salary).

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