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Cubs call up Ben Brown as Justin Steele hits the IL

Ryan Herrera Avatar
March 30, 2024

A year ago at this time, Ben Brown making his major league debut during the 2023 season felt like a question of when, not if.

The Cubs acquired Brown from the Phillies at the 2022 trade deadline. He hadn’t pitched a ton in the minors prior to that season (including only 29 2/3 innings between 2019 and 2021) due to various ailments, including Tommy John surgery. But with Philadelphia’s High-A affiliate the first four months of that year, he posted a 3.08 ERA and struck out 105 hitters in 73 innings.

When the Cubs brought him in, they immediately placed him in Double-A. They then felt good enough about his potential to add him to the 40-man roster that offseason, and when he began 2023 with four dominant starts (0.45 ERA, 30 strikeouts in 20 innings) for Tennessee, he earned a quick promotion to Triple-A. The big leagues felt very close.

Obviously, Brown never did pitch for the Cubs last year. While he had plenty of strong outings with Iowa, there were some rougher ones mixed in. Even still, a call-up later in the season was a possibility until an oblique injury landed him on the injured list.

Brown first felt it the day before he pitched five innings of one-run ball on July 30. He was then diagnosed with a strained left oblique and went on the IL on Aug. 2. It initially put him pitching again last year into question, and it of course hurt his chances of pitching in the big leagues in 2023.

“[The injury] crushed me, for sure,” Brown told CHGO during spring training.

But now, he’s finally getting that opportunity.

On Saturday, the Cubs recalled Brown from Iowa and placed Justin Steele — who exited his Opening Day start after 4 2/3 innings — on the 15-day IL with a left hamstring strain. That’s a testament not only to what they think Brown can contribute to this team with its ace on the shelf, but also to how hard he’s worked to put the issues that crept up last season behind him.

Even before the injury, Brown had his struggles. Again, there were plenty of moments where he was dominant. But there were also times when things weren’t clicking and command became an issue, as evidenced by a 15.8 percent walk rate with Iowa.

Take his end-of-June/start-of-July stretch, for example: He gave up six runs and recorded just two outs before getting pulled on June 25, followed that by throwing five innings of two-run ball on July 3, and then lasted just 1 1/3 innings while giving up six runs again on July 9.

And when he did return in early September as a reliever, there was still some inconsistency. Four of his seven appearances were scoreless, but in the other three, he gave up eight runs over a total of two innings combined.

Reflecting on his September, Brown noted the stress he put on his body while rehabbing as a cause for some of the issues.

“I’m not bad at rehabbing. I enjoy the process of getting healthy. It doesn’t really scare me too bad,” he said. “But at that point, I put a lot of pressure on myself to come back better than I was, and it was just too much at the time. I think that’s why I struggled when I came back, because there was so much emotional and physical stress I put on my body over those four weeks to come back from it. But I’m really thankful for how they gave me an opportunity to come back.”

As far as the overall struggles he experienced during the season, Brown pointed to some mechanical and physical stuff that needed to be addressed. He spent the winter at the Cubs’ facility in Arizona correcting the issues that were working against him last year, and if his strong spring performance (0.64 ERA in five appearances) is any indication, it seems to have paid off.

“There was a number of things,” Brown said. “I could go on and on, but thankfully, there was a number of things. It wasn’t like there was nothing and we can’t figure it out. Like, there was so many things that went wrong last year that we’re able to fix this year, and I’m just thankful for everyone that was involved in that process of attacking those deficiencies and making them better.”

Brown’s role with the Cubs is unclear at the moment.

Him pitching out of the bullpen in September was more so because there wasn’t enough time to completely build back up to start, he said, so don’t take it as a sign the Cubs were trying to convert him into a reliever. And with Steele’s injury opening up a spot in the rotation, along with Jameson Taillon already entering the year on the IL, he very well could take on some starts moving forward.

Cubs manager Craig Counsell told reporters in Texas that Brown will be available out of bullpen Saturday against the Rangers, and they haven’t made a decision on who will take Steele’s next start.

Whatever the Cubs ask from Brown, though, he’s ready to help.

“I’m bought in to do whatever they need me to do,” Brown said. “I know I can be a starter. I’m confident in the fact that I can be a starter and be a starter for a long time and do a good job at it, Lord willing.

“But whatever they need me to do, I’ll do. I’m in for whatever. I just wanna pitch.”

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