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MESA, Ariz. — Caleb Kilian knows his first stint in the big leagues wasn’t what everyone hoped it would be.
He started off with a strong major league debut on June 4 against the Cardinals, a five-inning, three-run outing that saw him send the first nine St. Louis batters he faced back to the dugout. After a quick 10-day option back to Triple-A Iowa, Kilian was recalled for two more starts. In those two outings combined, however, his line was: 6 1/3 innings, 8 hit, 12 runs (10 earned), 10 walks and three strikeouts.
Kilian’s had been one of the most anticipated Cubs pitching prospect call-ups in recent memory, but his big league run ended after that third start.
The problems didn’t stop when he went back to Iowa, though. Prior to that second call-up, Kilian had walked just 1.75 batters per nine innings (31 BB, 159 1/3 IP) in his entire time in the minors. From the time after getting optioned down following his third big league start through the end of the year, that number was 6.08 (43 BB, 63 2/3 innings). At the same time, his 2022 ERA rose from 2.06 before his debut to 4.22 at the end of the year.
Considering command was considered one of Kilian’s strengths before his debut, the decreasing command afterward was concerning.
“Obviously, I was getting myself into trouble walking guys towards the end of the year, and I just need to limit that,” Kilian told CHGO. “I know I can. I’ve done it in the past.”
Kilian worked on his mechanics all offseason, and one of the main things he and his coaches discovered was that his stride had changed. He said he had always landed closed, but somewhere along the line, he had started to land more open. That seems to at least partially have affected the rest of his mechanics and helped lead to the issues he had experienced.
So, Kilian took the offseason and the beginning of camp to really focus on that aspect of his delivery. He had attempted to make some mechanical changes last season, but he found that it was starting to take his focus away from just pitching.
“I started thinking about my mechanics way too much while I was pitching,” Kilian said. “It was like I was thinking of a new thing to tweak every start. I would have a really good start, and then I would pitch like crap the next week. It was frustrating, but being able to work on it all this offseason and kind of getting that in my brain, feeling muscle memory, I think it’s been great.”
Kilian said he is already encouraged by the early returns of that fix, as it has helped clean up other mechanical problems. He tries not to think about making sure he lands closed when he’s facing live hitters, because if he thinks about it too much, “the ball doesn’t really go where I want it to go.” But otherwise, Kilian is working at it until it becomes muscle memory.
Kilian also said he’s been working on his changeup, a pitch he’s been developing since he was traded to the Cubs at the 2021 deadline. And his goal for the changeup this year is simple: throw it more.
“I worked on it a lot last year, it just didn’t translate super well,” Kilian said. “I didn’t use it a whole lot. So, kind of forcing myself to throw it more, I can trust it now.”
All of that is still just a part of the 25-year-old’s development. His first run in the big leagues didn’t go how he envisioned, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a bright future ahead of him. Right now, it’s about earning that opportunity again.
“Obviously, it’s a goal of mine to break [camp] with the team, but if that doesn’t happen, I can still make it up there later,” Kilian said. “So, I’m going to try to get outs, basically be myself. Get back to being myself. Not trying to chase strikeouts and throwing hard. Just trying to fill up the zone and let the hitters get themselves out.”
Morel’s 2023 outlook
The first part of Christopher Morel’s 2022 season caught most people by surprise.
On May 14, he was busy playing for Double-A Tennessee. On May 17, he was up with the Cubs and finished his first career at-bat with a home run that would’ve blown the roof off of Wrigley Field if it had one. He proceeded to reach base in 22 straight games to start his career, a franchise record. It was as remarkable as it sounded.
But the usual rookie struggles eventually came along. After the All-Star break, he hit just .194 with a 34.2 percent strikeout rate. The 23-year-old flashed so much potential when he was at his best, but his low also showed he’s still very much developing.
“I think Christopher put himself on the map last year with some really good swings,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “A couple of months there he swinging the bat really well, and had some adversity in there, too.”
The way the roster looked at season’s end, Morel had plenty of paths to consistent playing time. He’d played five different positions (2B, 3B, SS, LF, CF) his first year in the big leagues, and at the time, only two (SS, LF) seemed to be filled.
But over the offseason, most of those were addressed. The Cubs brought in Dansby Swanson to be the new starting shortstop, which moved Nico Hoerner over the second base. They also added Cody Bellinger to man center field, and Ian Happ is of course still the starting left fielder.
Morel’s path to a starting spot appears to be at third base. However, Morel struggling defensively at the hot corner in 2022, posting -3 defensive runs saved and -3 outs above average, both his worst marks on the infield. So, improving at the hot corner had to be an offseason focus for him.
“I worked a lot at third base, just like I do any other [position], just not knowing [where I might be asked to play],” Morel said through interpreter and Cubs education coordinator José Menedez. “If there’s an opportunity that’s going to be there, I’ll try to take it.”
If he doesn’t win the job out of camp, Ross still has plans for Morel. He said Morel can still be the fourth outfielder, along with playing three of the four infield positions.
Of course, Morel would still have to show he can produce at a high level at the plate. He said he added weight this winter — which should add some more pop to his bat — and he focused on improving his plate discipline.
There’s certainly an opportunity in front of Morel here at the beginning of spring camp. It’s up to him to prove he can do it, regardless of where the Cubs see fit to put him.
“I’ve continue to be prepared for wherever they need me,” Morel said. “My job is to be here to go in and play where I’m wanted.”
Said Ross: “I think Christopher’s got a bright future ahead of him. We’ll see where this spring training takes him.”
- Morel, on seeing a bulked up Seiya Suzuki: “When I saw him, I told him how big he was and said next year, I’m going to be as big as him. And Seiya told me, ‘No, don’t do that. You’re just going to get slow.'”
- Seiya Suzuki, through interpreter Toy Matsushita, on possibly recruiting Shohei Ohtani to the Cubs: “I am inviting him.”
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