Cubs manager David Ross was coy when asked before the game Friday against the Cardinals if pitching prospect Caleb Kilian would be called up to pitch in the doubleheader Saturday.
“I do [know who it will be]; I just don’t want to tell you guys yet,” Ross said. “I’ll tell you after the game.”
Ross was well aware of the anticipation of a hot prospect coming to the major leagues in the middle of a rebuild. And that anticipation only grew when veteran right-hander Marcus Stroman was strafed for nine runs and 10 hits in a 14-5 loss to the Cardinals before 32,482 at Wrigley Field.
As expected, Kilian indeed was called up and will make his major-league debut against St. Louis in the second game of the doubleheader. It’s not quite a turning point in the rebuild but a significant step. The right-hander, who turned 25 on Thursday, is the first of the top-rated prospects the Cubs acquired in last year’s sell-off of 2016 World Series stalwarts Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Javy Baez and veterans Yu Darvish and Joc Pederson to reach the big leagues.
“I got to interact with him a little bit [in spring training], seems like a hard worker,” Ross said when asked for a scouting report on the 6-4, 180-pound Kilian. “Good makeup. He has big-league-starter type of stuff and continues to get better every day. I know he wants to grow, wants to learn. Pretty good energy about him. Got a nice fastball, and he’s been pitching really well.”
Kilian, acquired from the Giants for Bryant, has been in the spotlight since he pitched six perfect innings in the Arizona Fall League championship game last November. He has been stellar at Triple-A Iowa this season, going 2-0 with a 2.06 ERA and 41 strikeouts in 39„ innings.
Cubs catcher P.J. Higgins played with Kilian at Iowa but has caught him only in spring training. He has seen enough, though, to be excited about Kilian’s promotion.
“Kil’s got the full package of pitches,” Higgins said. “He’s got a live fastball. He’s got a good two-seam curveball, cutter and change-up. He’s got a good mix of both sides of the plate.”
At 22-30 after their three-game winning streak was snapped Friday, the Cubs still appear to be in the early stages of their rebuild. And following the template that produced Rizzo, Bryant, Baez, Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks, et al. — as the Cubs went from 96 losses in 2013 to champions in 2016 — seems like a daunting challenge at this point.
But with Kilian, the Cubs are at least giving themselves a chance to build the foundation with pitchers from the farm system, with Keegan Thompson (6-0, 1.99 ERA) and, to a lesser degree, Justin Steele (1-5, 5.40).
Even Ross doesn’t know if Kilian is ready for this.
“I don’t think we know that until we get him [here],” he said.
But it appears that Kilian will determine his fate, as outfielder Christopher Morel is doing after coming up from Double-A Tennessee as a fill-in player.
“I think you take it for what it’s worth,” Ross said. “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 wait-and-see.”
Fairly or unfairly, Kilian arrives amid some anticipation and excitement.
“For sure,” Higgins said. “It’s awesome for the organization. Everybody wants to see him. I want to see him, too, because I was able to watch him — not necessarily back there [catching him] as much as I was in spring training. But it’s going to be a big day for him. I’m happy for him. I expect him to do pretty well.”