After much more downtime than expected a year ago, Caleb Kilian has made up for it with an eventful 2021.
An eighth-round choice out of Texas Tech in 2019 after starting on back-to-back College World Series teams at Texas Tech, Kilian signed with the Giants for an over-slot $397,500. The right-hander didn't allow an earned run in his 16-inning debut, then the coronavirus pandemic wiped out what would have been his first full season.
Since then, his career has taken off. Kilian needed just four starts to earn a promotion from High-A to Double-A in May, went to the Cubs as part of the Kris Bryant trade in July, got caught up in a COVID outbreak at Double-A Tennessee in August and missed the final month of the season -- yet still wound up leading the Minors with an 8.6 K/BB ratio. Because he made just 19 starts before getting sidelined, Chicago sent him to the Arizona Fall League to get more innings with the Mesa Solar Sox.
Though he had limited resources while working out mostly on his own in the summer of 2020, Kilian was able to enhance his fastball. In college, he usually worked at 90-95 mph with his heater and saw it dip in the middle innings. At instructional league last fall and in the Minors this year, he sat in the mid-90s, topped out at 98 and maintained his velocity deeper into games.
"I started off training at a Little League field, throwing into a net," Kilian said with a chuckle as he recalled his regimen from last summer. "My goal was to get a lot stronger and add some weight. That allowed me to improve my velo a little farther into games."
Kilian has added some power to his curveball, which lacked consistency at Texas Tech, and shelved his slider in favor of a harder cutter with tighter break. He also exhibits feel for an average changeup, giving him a solid four-pitch repertoire that he can throw for strikes. He logged a 2.42 ERA, .205 opponents' average and 112 strikeouts in 100 1/3 innings between High-A and Double-A this season.
Kilian's stuff was down in his AFL debut, when he gave up seven runs without recording an out against Salt River in his first real game action in two months. The Fall League is more about development and experience than straight results, so he'll shake off that outing and focus on continuing his climb to the Majors. The best pitching prospect acquired by the Cubs in their flurry of midseason deals, he could arrive in Chicago at some point next year.
"I'm working on a few new pitch grips, trying to master all my pitches." Kilian said. "I'm trying to get my pitches to spin better and get shapes better for them, improve on my command."
Cubs hitters in the Fall League
Nelson Velazquez, OF (No. 29): Velazquez translated some of the best raw power among Cubs farmhands into a .270/.333/.496 season with 20 homers and 17 steals in 103 games between High-A and Double-A. A fifth-round pick out of a Puerto Rican high school in 2017, he also has a plus arm that adds to his right-field profile.
Luis Vazquez, SS: Another Puerto Rican prep product, Vazquez has established himself as one of the best infield defenders and strongest arms in the system since the Cubs made him a 14th-round choice in 2017. He has yet to show much at the plate, however, batting .264/.352/.428 in 34 games this year (mostly in High-A) while missing three months with a torn thumb ligament.
Andy Weber, SS: A fifth-rounder out of Virginia in 2018, Weber quickly became an organization favorite with his versatility and high baseball IQ. He batted .214/.302/.321 in 41 Double-A games, losing most of two months to toe injuries.
Cubs pitchers in the Fall League
Ryan Jensen, RHP (No. 15): If his final 11 starts of the season (2.23 ERA, .174 opponents' average, 52/15 K/BB ratio in 48 1/3 innings between High-A and Double-A) are any indication, Jensen may be learning to harness his overpowering stuff. The first-round pick from Fresno State had the best fastball in the 2019 college class and can run his four-seamer into the upper 90s while backing it up with power breaking pitches.
Danis Correa, RHP: Signed out of Colombia in 2016, Correa pitched just two innings from 2018-20 because of injuries and the pandemic shutdown. He returned this year to hit 100 mph with his fastball and flash a plus curveball while posting a 1.95 ERA, .162 opponents' average and 60 strikeouts in 37 frames between Low-A and High-A.
Brendon Little, LHP: Little has battled his control and nagging injuries since he went in the first round out of the State JC of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota in 2017, though he can touch 99 mph and flash a wipeout curveball and slider when he's on. He recorded a 3.24 ERA with 53 strikeouts in 41 2/3 innings between Double-A and Triple-A, missing most of the first two months with an oblique strain.