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A week ago at this time, the Caleb Kilian train appeared to still be a little further away from stopping on the North Side.
The Cubs’ No. 1 pitching prospect and a top five player in the system by most prospect rankings has been waiting in the wings of Triple-A all season, where he’s impressed with a 2.06 ERA, a 1.27 WHIP and 41 strikeouts in 39 1/3 innings. That’s come just a few months after Kilian pitched six perfect innings to help lead Mesa to the Arizona Fall League title back in November.
Kilian, who the Cubs acquired in the deal that sent Kris Bryant to San Francisco at last year’s trade deadline, had a slow build to his season. Even as recently as last Saturday, president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer discussed how him pitching in the AFL caused the team to gradually build him up throughout the spring and into the season.
But with that night’s game beginning a stretch of 11 games (two doubleheaders) in nine days for the Cubs, and with Kilian having stretched out to over 70 pitches in each of his last six starts, it would’ve made sense to use one of those spots to give Kilian a look, right?
“No sir,” David Ross said last Saturday, when asked if anything had changed from when he told reporters in Cincinnati on May 26 that Kilian was not in the mix for any of the doubleheader starts.
Or so we thought.
Following Friday’s 12-5 loss to the Cardinals, Ross announced that Kilian will be the starter for Game 2 of the doubleheader on Saturday.
A lot can happen in a week, but still, going from saying Kilian wasn’t in the discussion to naming him the Saturday night starter is a big jump in that time frame. Plenty of things had to happen for the Cubs to ultimately make that decision.
So, let’s take a look at how we got here.
Injuries pile up
Ross didn’t need to explicitly say that Seiya Suzuki was headed to the injured list in between the two games of Monday’s split doubleheader.
Based on his “We’ll see” answer to a reporter’s question about if an IL placement was coming, it was pretty obvious that it was only a matter of time. Suzuki had tried to hit that day and felt pain in his sprained left ring finger. Considering there was no marked improvement on the last day the Cubs could backdate an IL placement the full three days and still keep the stint at the minimum 10 days, it really became when, not if, the Cubs would officially put Suzuki on the shelf.
And about an hour and a half after that mid-game update, the Cubs officially placed Suzuki on the 10-day IL with a left ring finger sprain.
Suzuki said if it were all about him, he would play through the pain. But even if he did, it isn’t like there would be a good way for him to find many pain-free moments. Ross said that when Suzuki hit off the machine on Monday, the vibration from anything that wasn’t a barrel hurt. Suzuki’s throwing program has featured him throwing the ball to his trainer, Satoshi Kajiyama, and having his interpreter, Toy Matsushita, catch the ball for him.
“It’s quite different every day, in terms of the condition of my finger,” Suzuki said through Matsushita. “But I want to take it day by day and, obviously, use my day really effectively and just be out there as soon as possible.”
This is the Cubs’ $85-million man. The player they brought in from Nippon Professional Baseball to be, they hope, their right fielder of the future. The National League’s Rookie of the Month for April. The past few weeks had seen some struggles, but what’ll be at least a 10-day layoff between games for Suzuki just means it’ll be 10 days that he won’t get to see more pitching and gain an understanding of the in-game adjustments he needs to make.
Suzuki is the most high-profile IL placement simply because he was the most high-profile move this offseason, but he’s certainly not alone when it comes to injuries. As of Friday night, 14 different Cubs were on the IL. That includes position player depth pieces like Yan Gomes (10-day, left oblique strain) and Jonathan Villar (10-day, mouth injury).
“I would say it’s just been bad timing for us,” said Nick Madrigal, who was activated on Tuesday to fill Suzuki’s spot on the 26-man roster. “I feel like every team has injuries throughout the year, but it seems like it’s kind of hit us hard within the last couple of weeks. Just a little bit of bad luck here and there, but hopefully, some of the injuries aren’t too bad and we start coming back as a team. It has been a crazy couple of weeks for us.”
The ones that most directly impact the decision around Kilian are pitchers who are in the rotation picture, which includes 15-day IL arms Wade Miley (left shoulder strain) and Drew Smyly (right oblique strain). Alec Mills (right quad strain) and Adbert Alzolay (right shoulder strain) were also expected to be in the starter mix, but neither has pitched this season nor are they eligible to come off the 60-day IL until Monday at the earliest.
Mills is the closest to returning, as he has one more scheduled rehab outing with Iowa on Tuesday before next steps are determined. Meanwhile, Miley can’t come off the IL until June 10 at the earliest, Smyly predicted it could be around a month before his return and Alzolay has only just began some light throwing. The Cubs still have three more games to go over the next two days, and even though Keegan Thompson has moved into a rotation role to help alleviate some of the burden, those absences still necessitated the move to bring Kilian to the big-league level.
“We’ve got some guys banged up right now, for sure,” Ross said Monday.
Yeah, no kidding.
But the issues don’t end with the rotation.
Sean Newcomb is still on the 15-day IL with a left ankle sprain he suffered on May 8. Ethan Roberts was moved to the 60-day IL earlier this week week as he recovers from right shoulder inflammation and won’t be able to return until the end of the month.
The influx of injuries would’ve hurt the team no matter how many games were going to be played this week. Add on top of that the amount of innings that have been and still need to be covered before an off-day on Monday, and even though plenty of those arms would love to skirt the rules and give their team a breather, giving Kilian a shot became the only possible option to provide the pitching staff some relief.
“Rules are rules,” Mills said. “I wish we could break them sometimes, but that’s how it is.”
One of the roadblocks that had been standing in the way of a Kilian call up was a roster crunch in the 40-man — regardless of how bizarre it is to think a team in the Cubs’ position could even have a roster crunch.
Since Kilian had not yet been added to the 40-man by Friday night and it is full as it currently stands, that means the Cubs will have to open one of those spots. Since the Cubs are allowed to bring up a 27th man for the doubleheader, they don’t necessarily have to drop a player from the active roster to make room for Kilian, but there is still a move that needs to be made to get Kilian on the 40-man.
We’ve already seen this week how much maneuvering has to be done to make those moves:
- In order to add Matt Swarmer to the 40-man and active roster to make his major league debut on Monday, Roberts was transferred from the 10-day to the 60-day IL
- In order to add Brandon Hughes to both rosters in between that day’s doubleheader, the Cubs had to designate Robert Gsellman for assignment
- Since Jason Heyward had been on the COVID IL since May 17 and was therefore not on either the 40-man or the active roster, in order to bring him back on Wednesday, the Cubs had to option Nelson Velázquez while also recalling Manuel Rodríguez and immediately placing him on the 60-day IL
The mounting list of injuries didn’t make things any easier for the Cubs, but just that small portion of the various roster decisions that had to be made illustrate how much goes into the process.
Since the Kilian move is not yet official, the Cubs haven’t made that move to clear space on the 40-man. That move could end up someone being DFA’d, or it could involve moving an injured player like Michael Hermosillo to the 60-day IL. These are decisions the front office doesn’t take lightly, because they will have an effect on the immediate depth in the organization.
And even when that decision is made on Saturday, it doesn’t end there.
Mills and David Bote (60-day, left shoulder surgery) could both be ready to return at some point next week, which means there are another set of moves that the Cubs will have to be made to get them on the 40-man and the active rosters. As other players return from their various ailments, decisions will be made to bring them back, too.
It’s a thankless process, but clearly, it’s something the Cubs have at the top of the to-do list as they tried to weather the current storm.
“You want to be fully staffed or have a good full offense to play in doubleheaders and things like that. You don’t want to push the rest of the guys too hard,” Hoyer said last week. “But candidly, you also run into 40-man issues when you have all these decisions, right? You don’t want to mess up the 40-man or lose a really good player for something that might be two or three days. You think about those things a lot.
“I think we’ll get through these doubleheaders, we’ll get through some of these short-term ILs. When we do that, I think we’ll have a better chance to make some of those decisions that might affect our 40, but right now, the 40-man is a real consideration.”
Time for some debuts
If there’s one silver lining to all of this, Ross knows where to find it.
“Things are popping up all over the place right now, but on one hand, when you get some bad news, the exciting part is seeing a guy like Christopher Morel make his debut,” Ross said. “There’s good and bad in all that. I think the hard part is just learning some guys and how to use them in the right way and give them the freedom to go out there and play and produce. As much as the bad news feels like it’s coming a lot lately, there’s also a lot of energy from the young guys.”
Over the past few weeks, the Cubs have already seen plenty of prospects come up and make an impact.
Morel and Hughes had memorable starts to their careers two weeks ago. Velázquez made his own anticipated debut in Game 1 of Monday’s split doubleheader. Tagging along in Game 1 was Swarmer, who pitched six innings and allowed one earned run (just the ninth quality start by Cubs pitching this season) in his big-league debut. In the nightcap, Anderson Espinoza made his MLB debut after Smyly exited right before the top of the fourth, warming up on the mound in front of the Wrigley Field crowd and ultimately covering four innings when the Cubs badly needed it.
That’s on top of the return of PJ Higgins, who made his big-league debut just over a year ago, played in nine games, hit the IL with a right forearm strain and ended up undergoing season-ending elbow surgery. Higgins was recalled on May 22, and he provided his own bit of a spark by notching his first-career homer in Game 1 on Monday and followed that with a two-run blast on Tuesday that kick started the come-from-behind win.
“It’s been great,” Patrick Wisdom said about the influx of players from the minors. “They’re taking advantage of the opportunity, and that’s what it’s all about. Being ready when your name is called upon.”
“These guys are ready to compete and contribute,” Marcus Stroman said. “It’s awesome having young guys that bring up energy and go out there and perform. Swarmer was great. Morel has been incredible in that leadoff hole and playing everywhere on the field. Everybody is happy he’s in the lineup every time he’s out there. We feed off those guys as well, and I think we have a great culture here. Anytime we could get contributions from the young guys, I think that’s huge.”
Also with injuries — especially when those injuries are to players the Cubs really want to get an extended look at — do come eventual returns, like Madrigal being activated prior to Tuesday’s game after recovering from a lower back strain.
That’s about all the positives that can be taken from this tough stretch, though, because with so many players on the shelf, the constant roster shuffling makes things even harder than the Cubs would like them to be.
Still, Hoyer and Co. talk constantly about keeping one eye on the future, and right now, Cubs fans are getting their own chance to see what that future might look like. And if Kilian impresses at this level when he gets the opportunity, he could get a shot at sticking around for a while.
“I don’t look at it like that,” Ross said when asked if Kilian’s promotion is just a fill-in situation. “I think you take it for what it’s worth. Morel came up and got a chance to play a little bit. Good things happen to guys who take advantage of opportunities. I think that’s just a wait and see.”
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