WASHINGTON — Local players in the Major Leagues are the ideal outcome when an organization invests in draft picks and amateur signings.
It’s the best way to constantly replenish talent, and developing players, especially pitchers, frees up resources to allocate elsewhere on the roster. The rise of southpaw Justin Steele and right-hander Keegan Thompson as bona fide starters in the big leagues could allow the Chicago Cubs to invest more this offseason in an offensive game changer.
Just as important, starting pitching depth is becoming a strength within the Cubs’ system, bolstered by prospects acquired in trade-deadline moves. In Updated MLB.com Prospect Rankings released Wednesday, seven pitchers are among the Cubs’ top 15 prospects: 2022 first-round pick Cade Horton (No. 4), Jordan Wicks (No. 5), Ben Brown (No. 7), pick second-round picks Jackson Ferris (No. 8), Hayden Wesneski (No. 12), DJ Herz (No. 13) and Caleb Kilian (No. 14).
Five of them are pitching at Double-A Tennessee or Triple-A Iowa. The caliber of arms reaching the upper levels of the minors is an encouraging development for the Cubs and the prospect of turning things around quickly to consistently compete for the postseason again.
Before the Cubs’ 3-2 victory over the Washington Nationals on Wednesday at Nationals Park, assistant general manager and vice president of pitching Craig Breslow discussed a variety of topics, including the recent development of the minor leagues.
“Pitcher development can be fickle at times, so it’s very valuable to have a group of guys at all levels that we see as future major league contributors,” Breslow said. “And it’s not always the guys that we had anticipated going into the season, which is a credit to the work that they do, the staff, the resources that we have available here.
“We’re getting a clearer picture of the guys that we have in our system that are going to contribute to big league wins, and you also have the opportunity to complement and fill the gaps, which is a much easier task. than trying to create a list externally.”
Here are two other topics that Breslow addressed.
Caleb Kilian’s right-hander first major league test it didn’t go well.
Kilian, the Cubs’ top pitching prospect at the time of his debut, made three starts in June in which he struggled with his dominance, a supposed strength for the 25-year-old. He walked 12 batters in 11⅓ innings and allowed 15 runs (13 earned).
Kilian has pitched better at Iowa in his last four starts, although he did record six walks in one of those starts. Still, he’s clearly gaining momentum as the minor league season winds down. Breslow said Kilian is in a great place mentally and physically.
“There’s pressure to be a highly touted pitching prospect and get to the big leagues and maybe things won’t go exactly as planned,” Breslow said. “But even the All-Star break, which gave him a chance to catch his breath, come back and get back to his identity.”
The Cubs wanted to keep things simple for Kilian and address what kind of pitcher he is when he’s at his best. The message and plan of attack focuses on Kilian hitting the strike zone with his heavy sinker. The Cubs want Kilian to take that approach and build on it.
“That has become the backbone of his success in recent starts,” Breslow said. “And obviously our hope is that the trajectory continues because he has all the ingredients to be a legitimate Major League pitcher.”
It’s unclear if the Cubs will give Kilian another look in the majors down the stretch. They will be monitoring Steele and Thompson’s workloads for the last six weeks, but pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said in June that he would like to see both pitchers for a full season to prepare them for next year.
The Cubs could incorporate an extra rest or skip a start to ensure the two pitchers, both positioned to surpass career highs in innings pitched, can pitch through October. That could create starting opportunities for someone like Kilian. Veteran lefty Wade Miley also appears to be on the verge of rejoining the team, following his rehab start Tuesday at Iowa.
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Breslow wouldn’t say whether the Cubs appreciate Kilian getting more major league innings this year.
“It’s important that he continues to develop and it’s important that he understands where he is on this path and that he understands why we are collectively making the decisions that we are,” Breslow said. “And if that leads here, great, and if it doesn’t, that’s fine too.”
Thompson and Steele are great examples of how easing pitchers into the big leagues through the bullpen can be beneficial.
Both got their first major league experience coming out of the bullpen last year before returning to the minors to get stronger and return as starters. Steele and Thompson have credited how those rotation entries during the final weeks of 2021 helped them prepare for this season.
Breslow said the Cubs have had ongoing discussions about the possibility of employing that tactic with other top pitchers in their system.
This model allows the Cubs to control the environment, the opponent and the game situation when they make it easy for a starting pitcher to reach the majors. But if they go that route, they want to make sure they’re exposing those pitchers to a relief role in the minors before they come out of the bullpen in front of the biggest crowds of their pro careers.
“We’ve taken some of those approaches in the minor leagues where we piggyback guys and turn them around,” Breslow said, “just to make sure they understand they’re not going to be able to throw long balls in the outfield and then go to throw 45 pitches and sit down. Someone is going to call you and you have to get up and go in. So I think it worked out successfully.”