Cubs' Caleb Kilian routed as Jed Hoyer's rebuild feels growing pains

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Caleb Kilian embraces hype but not enough of strike zone originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

It’s not linear.

Well, except maybe for that double Oneil Cruz rocketed through centerfield on the last pitch Caleb Kilian threw Monday night in Pittsburgh.

That was pretty damn linear.

But this player-development season that 2022 has become for the Cubs?

Definitely not linear, as demonstrated by Kilian’s second rough start since getting called back up a couple of weeks after his big-league debut earlier this month.

But it’s here. And it promises to play out over these final three-plus months, in all its glorious highs and all its ugly lows — like that 12-1 loss to the worst offensive team in the league Monday night in Pittsburgh.

So when do the Cubs shift the organizational priority this season to the youth and spending the rest of the season in development mode.

“I think we already have,” team president Jed Hoyer said.

Exactly. And that was late last week, with 100 games to play.

“Obviously, you’re trying to take dual tracks with that, but we’re giving these guys the chance to play, whether it’s in the rotation or whether it’s playing centerfield or whatever,” Hoyer said. “You want to make sure when you have talented young guys, you give them the runway to play.“

So rookie Chris Morel obviously is the centerfielder, and leadoff man, for the Cubs until further notice. Outfielder Nelson Velázquez, who made his debut last month, is back as of Monday.

And top pitching prospect Kilian is in the rotation, along with fellow rookie Matt Swarmer and second-year pitchers Keegan Thompson and Justin Steele.

“You realize that with that comes struggles,” Hoyer said. “You look around the league, and there’s a lot of young players struggling. You have to give them that time in order to allow them to fulfill their potential.”

And that’s how a season like this could turn into the fourth 100-loss season in franchise history.

It’s also the risk of a process like this, the risk of blowing up a competitive roster and starting over again less than a decade after becoming the first major-market team in the free agency era to intentionally tank full seasons to rebuild.

Enter Kilian.

The right-hander acquired from the Giants in the Kris Bryant trade last July gained so much recognition with his dominant finish in the Arizona Fall League and lights-out start to his Triple-A season that he landed on a mid-season top-100 prospects list and became the most anticipated Cubs pitching prospect since Mark Prior to debut earlier this month.

“That’s awesome. I love that,” Kilian said. “The fans are so great. The support’s been awesome. I don’t know how much hype I actually have. But it’s awesome to be part of this team.”

A nine up, nine down start to his career against the Cardinals didn’t do anything to quiet the hype.

But his two starts since the debut have at least reminded anyone watching about that whole non-linear thing.

That last pitch he threw Monday was his 66th, and it came in the third inning. The only reason he didn’t finish with more balls than strikes was because the last one was a strike. The only reason he got an out in the third was because Cruz was thrown out at third base trying to stretch his bases-clearing double.

Ouch.

Kilian has the stuff. But he's had command problems with a capital “WP” and “BB” his last two starts.

Swarmer, by the way, also hasn’t looked good in his last two starts after starting his career with two promising ones.

Thompson, Steele and at least Kilian will continue to get long looks in the rotation this season even after some injured veterans start to filter back from the injured list. The Cubs need to find out what they have to know what they need to do next, over the winter, in this ugly looking, cost-saving rebuild.

Kilian is at least as important as any of the rest. For optics, for symbolism, for ticket sales, for now at least.

It’s not fair. But he’s the top prospect in this prospect-driven process.

And, again, Mark Prior.

“Well, I think all the pieces like that are really important,” Hoyer said. “He’s one of them. Whether it’s how Justin Steele is throwing or Keegan Thompson is throwing or how Morel is playing in centerfield, all these guys that we’ve called up, they’re young ad homegrown, and their seasons are really important.

“I don’t think [Kilian’s] any more important than those guys, but certainly part of this year is allowing those guys to get experience.”

How many will stick? How long will each of those processes take? And how long will it help add up to a core that can win series in October?

Without some serious progress, some serious pitching stepping up, that “next great Cubs team” Hoyer keeps talking about is going to start looking a lot like wishful, wistful thinking. Or at least a long, long way off.

On Monday, the perpetually retooling Pirates won the rookie battle in a rout. Cruz was making his even more hyped big-league debut — adding a 96-mph throw from shortstop for an out along the way (the fastest infield throw clocked in the majors this season).

The Pirates’ left fielder, Bligh Madris, also made his debut Monday and went 3-for-4, including a two-run single off Kilian in the second.

Nobody knows how much work Kilian has to do because of how badly Kilian’s pitches are missing than Kilian himself.

He also seems to know what’s at stake. For his own opportunity to claim a place on “Hoyer’s next great Cubs team” — if not for the Cubs having their best chance to build one of those anytime soon.

“Of course, I want to be part of it. I’m going to try to do everything I can to be part of it and work as hard as I can,” he said.

As for the outside noise and whatever hype might linger:

“It’s a goal of mine personally, so I don’t really try to let the opinions of other people dictate what I do,” Kilian said. “But it’s been a goal of mine for my entire life so i’m going to try everything I can to be the best pitcher I can possibly be.”

He’ll get plenty of opportunity, along with a handful of other prospects over these last 95 games.

And like it or not — fair or not — the Cubs are counting on him.

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