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

As the Cubs entered a five-game stretch in four days against the Cardinals, team officials kept open the possibility that Caleb Kilian could make his major league debut this weekend at Wrigley Field. But this decision about the other starter for Saturday’s doubleheader shouldn’t be that difficult. Kilian is the best pitching prospect this organization has seen since the start of the Theo Epstein era. Christopher Morel continues to show the importance of letting children play. If the 40-man roster had that many good players, the Cubs would have as much as a 1 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to the Baseball Reference and Baseball Prospectus.

Don’t think about it. Though not as anticipated as Anthony Rizzo’s rise from triple-A Iowa in 2012, or as electrifying as Javier Báez’s debut in 2014, or as controversial as Kris Bryant’s manipulation of service time in 2015, Kilian’s arrival will have some symbolism as almost immediate Return of Carry Huge sell-off at last year’s close. It’s been 44 weeks since the Cubs’ president of baseball operations, Jed Hoyer, traded Bryant to the Giants in exchange for Kilian and minor league outfielder Alexander Canario. Telling Cubs fans it’s a reset — or not a rebuild — isn’t as important as showing them genuine major league talent worth their time and money.

Kilian has not promoted Iowa since May 25 because the Cubs wanted to at least keep him as an option for Saturday’s doubleheader. While Kilian may not be a finished product, he played for three seasons at Texas Tech, excelled in the Arizona Fall League and turned 25 on Thursday. While Kilian’s enhancement material has yet to reach peak efficiency – and player development is a complex process that transcends traditional stats – it’s no coincidence or sheer luck that he has an ERA in his first nine Triple-A starts and 170 strikeouts of 2.06 has versus 30 walks in 155 2/3 career innings in the minors. Cubs manager David Ross and a group of progressive coaches develop young pitchers to major-league level.

Hoyer was right when he said last year’s trading deadline likely won’t be fully assessed until 2027. The Cubs don’t have that long to get this right either. When Hoyer replaced Epstein towards the end of 2020, he signed a new contract that runs through the 2025 season. Sellers at the close of trade usually have more time and a better chance of winning these deals since buyers are judged on whether or not they won the World Series that year. With the Cubs exiting the playoff race so quickly and showing lukewarm interest in retaining their upcoming free agents, “there was no reason to go halfway,” as Hoyer memorably put it.

There is no way the Cubs would go 8-for-8 on these trades between July 15th and July 30th of last year. But Kilian will join major league rotation sometime this season, and Canario is an intriguing power hitter with a swing-and-miss profile (12 homers and 66 strikeouts in 45 games combined this season at High-A South Bend and Double-A Tennessee). Pete Crow-Armstrong — the 2020 first-round pick acquired by the Mets in the Báez trade — was promoted to South Bend this week after hitting .354 with 1,000 OPS in 38 games with low-A Myrtle Beach. After a slow start at Myrtle Beach, 19-year-old Kevin Alcantara posted a .958 OPS in May, showing why the Cubs targeted the 6-foot-6 outfielder during Rizzo trade negotiations with the Yankees and understood that he has a huge cap, a lower probability, and a longer distance to reach the majors.

The trade with Craig Kimbrel didn’t go as the White Sox expected, and the Cubs are watching 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 .00 ERA in his first 12 1/3 innings from the bullpen with South Bend and Tennessee.

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

Amid the hustle and emotional goodbyes at last year’s trade close, the Cubs struck another deal that flew under the radar, sending outfielder Jake Marisnick to the Padres for pitcher Anderson Espinoza, who was ousted from San Diego’s 40-man roster and ran from minor league options.

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

The Red Sox signed Espinoza, originally from Venezuela, gave him a $1.8 million bonus and helped him develop into Baseball America’s No. 19 in the 2016 season. The Red Sox then traded Espinoza to the Padres for Drew Pomeranz midway through this season, a deal that prompted Major League Baseball to sell San Diego general manager AJ Preller for 30 days without pay for his handling of medical information during those negotiations to suspend.

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

“Preller always told me that one day that would be my staff’s ace,” Green said. “(Espinoza) has always been a great kid. Everyone loved him. He worked incredibly hard there. That reputation carried through to us in the big leagues when it was only in A-ball.”

Espinoza did not play competitively in the 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020 seasons. During his time with the San Diego system, he recorded just 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 what talent I had. It’s something I knew I had in me. I kept working on it. Luckily that day came.”

Espinoza, 24, needs the reps, extra time to improve his game and more innings to re-acclimate 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 find out as long as he stays sane.

“I didn’t really get into pitching with the Padres with all the injuries,” Espinoza said. “When I was handed over to the Cubs organization, I feel like they really let me be myself. I just went out and got myself a slider, which I haven’t had before. I used to throw fastball, changeup, curveball. But now, with this new playing field, I think I’m doing pretty well. Thank god I got the opportunity to go out there and keep improving.”

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

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