Cubs Spring Training Notebook: Development and progress for young pitching duo
GOODYEAR, Ariz. — Sometimes, adversity can help a young player.
“I think the strong players, the guys that have really long careers hit the adversity at some point, whether that’s at the minor leagues or in the big leagues,” manager David Ross said. “Being able to bounce back is really what establishes their fortitude to continue to trust themselves, believe in themselves and put the work in.”
Ross and the Cubs are hoping pitching prospect Caleb Kilian falls in that category. The early returns suggest that’s the case.
Kilian has allowed 1 run across 4 innings and 2 appearances this spring entering Wednesday’s outing against the Reds, but the composure and moxie he’s shown has what’s made Ross believe he’s turned a corner in his development.
“It’s just I think the confidence has continued to build,” Ross said. “I thought his command really looked good … The changeups really stood out and then he just looks that much more confident this spring.”
He had another strong outing before Wednesday’s game against the Reds was called due to inclement weather, allowing 1 run on 3 hits with a pair of strikeouts in 3 innings of work. He had a 4-pitch 1st inning, then made a slick catch in the 2nd inning. In the 3rd inning, he picked up the first two outs, the Reds loaded the bases and he escaped the jam by inducing a flyout.
Pitchers ARE athletes. pic.twitter.com/PN5I4hcx1B— Marquee Sports Network (@WatchMarquee) March 16, 2023
It was the kind of outing that he thinks shows who he can be as a pitcher.
“I think a lot of that just comes from being healthy and trying to fill up the zone and drawing weak contact,” Kilian said. “I’ve been doing that my whole life. So, I’m realizing that’s who I am, not trying to chase strikeouts too much. They’ll just happen when it happens.”
The 25-year-old righty debuted in the majors last season to much fanfare. He was one of the prospects acquired from the Giants in the Kris Bryant trade (along with outfielder Alexander Canario) and, outside of Nick Madrigal and Codi Heuer, was the player closest to the big leagues of that trade deadline haul.
But his first taste of “The Show” didn’t go as he or the Cubs had hoped. He struck out 6 Cardinals in 5 innings of work in his MLB debut but allowed 3 runs on 3 hits. His next two outings, he allowed 10 earned runs across 6.1 innings with 10 walks and just 3 strikeouts. Those struggles continued in the minor leagues where he posted a 4.95 ERA in July, a 6.35 ERA in August and a 4.00 ERA in September.
Kilian worked on some of his mechanics in the offseason and the early returns have been promising. He’s still most likely to start the season in Triple-A, but his continued success and improvement could bode well for the Cubs later in the season if injuries or bad performances occur in the Cubs’ rotation.
“He’s a worker,” Ross said. “Put in that work to come out the other side of that is really really powerful. I don’t think we talk about that enough.”
Along the lines of gauging success, for pitchers a lot of times it’s not necessarily a results-oriented business in spring.
“For me it’s more of like feel, how I’m feeling,” Justin Steele said Tuesday night after his outing against the Rockies.
Steele lasted just 2.2 innings, allowing 3 runs on 5 hits and a pair of home runs, but was focusing on throwing all his pitches in the outing.
“I like where I was at,” Steele said. “Felt really good with all of them. Felt like I was locating for the most part with them. Hung a few sliders and they did what they’re supposed with it. Other than that, that’s gonna happen. I’d rather it happen in spring, I guess.”
For the first time in his big-league career, Steele is having as close to a normal spring as he can. His rookie campaign in 2021 was impacted by pandemic restrictions and he didn’t start the year with the big-league club, joining later in the season and pitching in a multi-inning relief role to start. In 2022, there was the lockout and he was competing for a roster spot – either in the rotation or in the bullpen.
“I was more so wanting to get on the team and make sure I was on the team last year,” Steele said.
This year, though, he knows he’s not only on the team, but part of the Cubs’ starting rotation.
“I think this year I’m doing a good job of using the full 6 weeks we’ve had,” Steele said. “I’ve been doing a good job of making sure we’re pacing everything and making sure I’m built up to a number of pitches that I wanna be worked up to by the time the start of the season gets here.”
The Cubs host the Diamondbacks at 3:05 p.m. at Sloan Park. Lefty Drew Smyly will start for the Cubs.