Home Sports Column: Caleb Kilian’s major-league debut Saturday should give Chicago Cubs fans a brief glimpse into the future

Column: Caleb Kilian’s major-league debut Saturday should give Chicago Cubs fans a brief glimpse into the future

by staff

Starter Caleb Kilian will make his major-league debut Saturday at Wrigley Field, giving the Chicago Cubs their first look at one of the top prospects acquired during last summer’s sell-off.

Manager David Ross made the announcement after Friday’s 14-5 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals before 32,482 at Wrigley Field.

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Whether it’s a spot start or a chance to join the rotation remains to be seen.

“Take it for what it’s worth,” Ross said. “(Christopher) Morel came up and got a chance to play a little bit. Good things happen to guys who take advantage of opportunities.”

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Kilian will start Game 2 of the split doubleheader. Matt Swarmer is set to start the first game.

It’s sure to be a momentous occasion in the Cubs’ rebuild, or reset, or whatever word team President Jed Hoyer prefers to use when describing his game plan, and a chance for the organization to show the future is brighter than it seems.

Kilian, 25, is one of only two of the Cubs’ top 15 prospects above the Double-A level. Outfielder Brennen Davis, the No. 1 prospect, underwent back surgery Thursday, the Tribune’s Meghan Montemurro reported Friday. When Davis will be able to return is unknown.

So for the time being, Kilian will be the prospect getting the most scrutiny. The lack of pitching talent coming through the system over the last decade has been well chronicled. But if Hoyer’s latest plan comes to fruition, Kilian, Keegan Thompson and Justin Steele could be part of the rotation for years to come.

One of the biggest differences so far between the Theo Epstein rebuild and Hoyer’s re-whatever has been the low-hype approach to the top prospects. Kilian, who arrived in the Kris Bryant deal with the San Francisco Giants, has been much less talked about than Bryant was in the days and weeks before his arrival in April 2015.

“The rhetoric from outside is going to be glamorous, glorious,” then-manager Joe Maddon said a day before Bryant’s call-up. “Whatever you want to call it, from within, (the hype) has to be real. In conversation with the guy, whether it’s Kris Bryant or potentially an Addison Russell or a Javy Báez, we have a lot of these guys.”

Kilian went 2-0 with a 2.06 ERA in nine starts at Triple-A Iowa, with 41 strikeouts in 39⅓ innings. An eighth-round pick by the Giants out of Texas Tech in 2019, he’s the Cubs’ No. 5 prospect, according to MLB.com rankings.

Catcher P.J. Higgins, who played with Kilian at Iowa but never caught him, said Cubs fans should be excited about Kilian’s debut.

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“The sky’s the limit for him,” Higgins said. “I’m impressed with what he’s doing.”

The Cubs insist they’re still trying to compete for a postseason spot — while conceding they’re focused on developing young talent and building the next contending team. Balancing those diverse goals is an inexact science, as the players in the clubhouse know well.

“You’ve got time to develop and time to grow,” Higgins said. “But with the resources we have and the coaching staff and the veteran presence we have, those steps can be quicker and easier. It’s easier said than done. But we have two top notch guys in Willie (Contreras) and Yan (Gomes) who have a lot of insight to help these guys advance quickly.”

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Kilian has been limited to between 70-80 pitches at Iowa, and has thrown more than five innings in only one start. Injuries to Drew Smyly and Wade Miley have opened up two rotation spots.

The Cubs could use a boost after Marcus Stroman (2-5) came into Friday with a 1.80 ERA over his last five starts but was knocked around early, allowing a career-high nine runs on 10 hits over four innings, his worst outing in nine starts this season. Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Gorman hit three-run home runs off Stroman, with Goldschmidt extending his hitting streak to 25 games.

“Just one of those days where I’ve got to come back to the drawing board and figure some things out,” Stroman said, adding: “I need to be better. That’s it.”

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With the game tied 4-4 in the fourth, the Cardinals broke through with five runs off Stroman, who has a 9.93 ERA in four starts at Wrigley and has yet to last more than five innings at home. Ross said he would “look at the tape” to find out what went wrong.

First baseman Frank Schwindel served up a pair of home runs pitching the ninth, the second time a position player has thrown relief for the Cubs in the last nine games.

The Cubs fell to 22-30 and have a 10-18 record at Wrigley Field.

With 110 games remaining and the postseason a pipe dream, it will be up to kids like Kilian, Morel, Thompson and Steele to make the season more palatable for Cubs fans.

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