CINCINNATI — Kyle Hendricks goes back to where it all started for him in his 2014 debut when he pitches against the Reds at Great American Ball Park on Wednesday.
But if you want to keep one eye on the future for the Cubs — like team president Jed Hoyer says he’s doing these days — watch what’s going on in Memphis, Tenn., where Caleb Kilian makes his ninth start of the season for Triple-A Iowa at 11 a.m.
That would put the kid with the 1.31 ERA and fast-developing power repertoire right on schedule for a possible major-league debut five days later during the Cubs’ home doubleheader against the Brewers on Monday.
Not that the Cubs are saying much about their plans for how they’re going to cover starts during a homestand with nine games in seven days, including another doubleheader the next Saturday against the Cardinals.
Even as they’re discussing several possibilities that include Kilian, as team president Jed Hoyer said last week.
“We’re taking things one day at a time,” said former big-league pitcher Craig Breslow, the Cubs’ assistant general manager and vice-president of pitching (in other words, the top dog in the Cubs’ revamped pitching development structure).
“Obviously, we’re well aware of what he’s been able to accomplish,” said Breslow, who's with the club on the trip to Cincinnati. “There’s a lot of excitement, rightfully so, around him. What we’re focused on is kind of polishing up development, knowing that he’s kind of passing every hurdle as we’re putting them in front of him. And hopefully that forebodes to a successful major league career.”
Maybe starting Monday. Or a week from Saturday. Or both.
If it seems like a lot is being made of Kilian, the prospect acquired from the Giants in last summer’s Kris Bryant trade who then made Arizona Fall League history with six perfect innings in the AFL title game, it’s because he’s that big when it comes to tracking a timeline for the Cubs’ second lengthy rebuild in a decade.
Whether that turns out to be more symbolic or substantive, Kilian is the next great homegrown hope for what Hoyer calls the “next great Cubs team” he’s trying to build.
Breslow calls him “an extreme strike thrower” whose profile for projecting a few decisive tweaks to his off-speed pitches was especially appealing to the Cubs when it came time to swing the deal for the 6-foot-4 pitcher and A-ball outfielder Alexander Canario.
“We knew he was a guy that was going to look a lot better in a Cubs uniform,” said Breslow of what he called a “collaborative effort” between scouts, analysts and the top bosses to target Kilian.
If he’s the real deal at the next level that his start this year at Triple-A suggests, and if Justin Steele and Keegan Thompson continue their big-league trajectories according to their 2022 starts, and if there’s a second and third prospect close on Kilian’s heels toward a debut by season’s end … well, you get the idea.
Want to get an idea of the Cubs’ nebulous, elusive, who-knows timeline for returning to the playoffs? Then keep an eye on that young pitching the rest of the year, in a Chicago Cubs uniform or I-Cubs uniform.
Starting Wednesday in Memphis.
“The one thing that I will say — and this is not indicative of anything other than what we’ve seen with this big-league infrastructure — is that development is continuing to take place at the major-league level,” Breslow said. “Whereas five years ago, 10 years ago, you felt like you needed to introduce a finished product to the major-league clubhouse.”
It might be the biggest key to how fast the Cubs can contend again or whether their player development stumbles again and elongates the process: this revamped Cubs pitching infrastructure that focuses on acquiring power stuff, tweaking off-speed grips and spin in its “labs” and getting guys to the big leagues as soon as they look like they can float well enough to keep developing there.
“Now it’s time to kind of see [the results] on the field,” Breslow said of the overhaul he and others say is showing a lot of promise.
“This season will be more important for us to evaluate if that process works, if we can focus on some of the raw materials and then turn those guys into people we can rely on to get outs during the course of the season,” he said. “We’re two months into the season, but I think we’re starting to see that this is playing out as we anticipated.”
Like it or not, Kilian looks like the face of that process for now.
Probably with an emphasis on now.