Caleb Kilian and the Cubs’ early returns on their 2021 trade-deadline moves

As the Cubs entered a stretch of five games in four days against the Cardinals, team officials kept open the possibility of Caleb Kilian making his major-league debut this weekend at Wrigley Field. But this decision on the other starter for Saturday’s doubleheader shouldn’t be that difficult. Kilian is the best starting pitching prospect this organization has seen since the beginning of the Theo Epstein era. Christopher Morel continues to show the value in letting the kids play. If the 40-man roster was stocked with so many good players, then the Cubs wouldn’t have less than a 1 percent chance to make the playoffs, according to Baseball-Reference and Baseball Prospectus.

Don’t overthink it. Though not as anticipated as Anthony Rizzo’s promotion from Triple-A Iowa in 2012 or as electric as Javier Báez’s debut in 2014 or as controversial as Kris Bryant’s service-time manipulation in 2015, Kilian’s arrival will carry some symbolism as an almost immediate return from the huge sell-off at last year’s trade deadline. It’s been 44 weeks since Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer traded Bryant to the Giants for Kilian and minor-league outfielder Alexander Canario. Telling Cubs fans it’s a reset — or not a rebuild — doesn’t matter as much as showing them real major-league talent that’s worth their time and money.

Kilian hasn’t pitched for Iowa since May 25 because the Cubs wanted to at least keep him as an option for Saturday’s doubleheader. Though Kilian might not be a finished product, he pitched at Texas Tech for three seasons, excelled in the Arizona Fall League and turned 25 on Thursday. Even if Kilian’s improving stuff hasn’t reached peak efficiency yet — and player development is a complex process that goes beyond traditional stats — it’s not an accident or all luck that he has a 2.06 ERA in his first nine Triple-A starts and 170 strikeouts versus 30 walks in 155 2/3 career innings in the minors. Cubs manager David Ross and a group of progressive coaches are already developing young pitchers at the major-league level.

Hoyer was correct when he said last year’s trade deadline probably can’t be fully evaluated until 2027. The Cubs also don’t have that long to get this right. When Hoyer replaced Epstein near the end of 2020, he signed a new contract that runs through the 2025 season. Sellers at the trade deadline usually have more time and better odds to win those deals because the buyers are judged on winning the World Series that year or not. Since the Cubs dropped so quickly out of the playoff race and showed lukewarm interest in retaining their impending free agents, “there was no reason to go halfway,” as Hoyer memorably said.

There’s no way the Cubs go 8-for-8 on those trades between July 15 and July 30 last year. But Kilian will join the major-league rotation at some point this season, and Canario is an intriguing power hitter with a swing-and-miss profile (12 homers and 66 strikeouts through 45 games combined this season at High-A South Bend and Double -In Tennessee). Pete Crow-Armstrong — the 2020 first-round pick acquired from the Mets in the Báez trade — earned a promotion to South Bend this week after hitting .354 with a 1,000 OPS in 38 games with Low-A Myrtle Beach. Following a slow start at Myrtle Beach, Kevin Alcantara, 19, posted a .958 OPS in May, showing why the Cubs targeted the 6-foot-6 outfielder during the Rizzo trade negotiations with the Yankees, understanding he has an enormous ceiling, a lower probability and a longer distance to reach the majors.

The Craig Kimbrel trade didn’t work out as the White Sox expected, and the Cubs are monitoring Codi Heuer’s recovery from Tommy John surgery and waiting for Nick Madrigal (.508 OPS) to establish himself on the North Side. Bailey Horn — the left-handed pitcher the Cubs received from the White Sox in the Ryan Tepera deal — has a 0.00 ERA through his first 12 1/3 innings out of the bullpen with South Bend and Tennessee.

Before Joc Pederson got slapped by Tommy Pham, his exit signaled the beginning of Hoyer’s sell-off and Atlanta’s recommitment to try to win the World Series with midseason reinforcements. Bryce Ball—the 6-foot-6, 240-pound slugger the Cubs received in the Pederson trade—has an .835 OPS through his first 46 games at the Double-A level.

Amid the flurry of activity and emotional goodbyes at last year’s trade deadline, the Cubs finalized another deal that flew under the radar, sending outfielder Jake Marisnick to the Padres for pitcher Anderson Espinoza, who was getting pushed off San Diego’s 40-man roster and running out of minor-league options.

Chicago Cubs relief pitcher Anderson Espinoza during his major-league debut May 30. (Mark Black/Associated Press)

The Red Sox originally signed Espinoza out of Venezuela, giving him a $1.8 million bonus and helping him develop into Baseball America’s No. 19 prospect heading into the 2016 season. The Red Sox then traded Espinoza to the Padres for Drew Pomeranz in the middle of that season, a deal that led Major League Baseball to suspend San Diego general manager AJ Preller for 30 days without pay for his handling of medical information during those negotiations.

Cubs bench coach Andy Green worked as San Diego’s manager during that time and remembered the glowing scouting reports on Espinoza before he underwent two Tommy John surgeries in 2017 and 2019.

“Preller always told me that was going to be the ace of my staff someday,” Green said. “(Espinoza’s) always been a great kid. Everybody loved him. He worked incredibly hard over there. That reputation made its way up to us in the big leagues when he was only in A-ball.”

Espinoza did not pitch competitively during the 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020 seasons. During his time in San Diego’s system, he logged only 61 innings at the Fort Wayne affiliate. That long journey made his major-league debut during a Memorial Day doubleheader at Wrigley Field so satisfying.

“I never lost faith,” Espinoza said through team interpreter/media relations staffer Will Nadal. “I always knew the talent that I had. It’s something that I knew I had in me. I kept working on it. Thankfully, this day came.”

Espinoza, 24, needs the repetitions, the extra time to sharpen his game and more innings to get reacclimated as a pitcher (0-4, 7.62 ERA in eight Double-A starts this season). With the Cubs in win-later mode, this is a good spot for a pitching prospect who’s still young enough to figure it out, as long as he stays healthy.

“With the Padres, I didn’t really get to pitch much with all the injuries,” Espinoza said. “Once I was traded over to the Cubs organization, I feel like they really let me be myself. Just going out there, I’ve acquired a slider, which is something that I didn’t have before. I used to throw fastball, changeup, curveball. But now with that new pitch, I think I’m doing pretty well. Thanks to God, I’ve gotten the opportunity to go out there and continue to improve.”

(Top photo: Jill Weisleder/MLB Photos via Getty Images)


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