Tempered Expectations for Caleb Kilian, Tempers Rise Watching Cubs Bullpen
Oh, how the turntables. Just three weeks after David Ross said top pitching prospect Caleb Kilian was not in the plans for the near future, the rookie will be making his second start in Chicago. The organization didn’t so much choose that path as it was forced to change course after a spate of injuries and fatigue wiped out 60% of the rotation.
Ross didn’t talk the young righty up very much Tuesday night, which is understandable given he was making the announcement in the wake of a loss in which the Cubs allowed a dozen unanswered runs after holding a 5-0 lead. More on that in a bit, but let’s get back to Kilian quickly before discussing the arm barn.
“We’ve got to give the young man a body of work before we start tinkering and changing,” Ross told reporters. “Let’s see what kind of pitcher he is first before we start suggesting he should do something different.”
Everyone got a pretty good look at what Kilian can be, whether it was striking out the first two batters he faced on seven total pitches or bouncing back from a rough inning to close strong with another strikeout. The manager explained that he and pitching coach Tommy Hottovy, along with Jed Hoyer, discussed the outing with Kilian and gave him a chance to offer his own feedback on it.
They must have liked what they heard in addition to what they saw because Kilian is back up inside of 15 days from being optioned. That means the Cubs are going to have to place someone on the injured list, and by God, I’m probably going to unleash a very sternly worded Twitter thread if it’s Nick Madrigal. Not because the second baseman’s absence is a big loss right now, but because the Cubs would have yet again chosen to play a man down for four games.
In all likelihood, they’ll come up with a phantom injury to someone on the pitching staff in order to keep the roster balanced.
Maybe that means someone from the bullpen will be grounded for a while, which isn’t a bad idea given that unit’s general overuse this season. Cubs relievers rank fourth in MLB with 260.1 innings so far, but their average of 1.27 innings per outing is greater than every team other than the Pirates (1.34). Of the top 10 teams in bullpen usage, only three (Rays, Twins, Red Sox) have winning records.
There are a few different ways you can slice that, but those who’ve watched too much Cubs baseball this season know that a lot of those innings involve carrying a mop to the mound. There’s also been a shift in performance as the season has gone along, with the ‘pen going from strength to weakness. Whether that’s a matter of overuse, inevitable regression, or some combination of both is up for debate.
Through May 16, Cubs relievers had an aggregate 3.27 ERA (seventh-best in MLB) over 140.1 innings (11th) and had accumulated 1.5 fWAR (fourth-highest). In 120 innings (second-most) since, they have a 6.08 ERA (29th) and -0.2 fWAR (24th). The Cubs have gone from bad to worse in that stretch, moving from 14-20 (.412) to 23-38 (.377) and a 100-loss pace.
Don’t worry, I’ll dispense with the parentheticals moving forward.
This was all bound to happen, or at least it was highly likely given the abject lack of consistency from the starting rotation. It seems like someone is being called up every few days to take a spot start due to either injury or scheduling issues. Add in poor overall play and having to throw relievers into suboptimal spots with great frequency and you’ve got a recipe for the bullpen to collapse like a dry souffle.
The Cubs have shown year after year that they can cobble together a serviceable relief corps out of duct tape, paper clips, and a handful of reclamation arms, but you can only stretch that so far before things start to break. And really, does the front office even want the bullpen to lock down these games? Not when each loss helps them get closer to a top draft lottery draw.
The Cubs are firmly entrenched in a three-legged race to the NL Central cellar and could yet have a shot at the worst record in MLB. Oakland and KC aren’t taking their own tanking lightly, though they’re only three games worse than the Cubs right now. Spinning off David Robertson and other pitchers with any value could give the Cubs the extra effort they need to dig their hole just a little deeper.
What’s tough about this whole thing is that you know none of these players share that same goal. They’re out there every night trying to shut their opponents down, it’s just becoming increasingly more difficult given the situation. The good news, if that’s fair to say, is that we should get a very good look at more young pitchers once the trade deadline strips away several veterans.
Of course, that assumes anyone is still watching by then.