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MESA, Ariz. — The Cubs came into spring training without a totally clear picture of what the rotation will look like on Opening Day.
Longest-tenured player Kyle Hendricks and new additions Marcus Stroman and Wade Miley were expected to make up the top three starters, but behind them, there were a few arms who could compete for one of the remaining spots. More additions over the last week have created even more scenarios for what the rotation might look like.
But there is a young arm who’s clearly making a surge toward locking down a job in the rotation: Justin Steele.
Despite making just nine starts during his 2021 campaign, Steele showed plenty of flashes as a rookie. There was his five-inning, one-hit showing in Minnesota that earned him his first win as a big league starter. His last start of the season on Sept. 30 was easily his most impressive; he tossed seven shutout innings on just 76 pitches and struck out a career-high seven batters.
That was the perfect outing for Steele to end his season on, because it gave both the coaching staff and himself the confidence that he just might be a long-term option for a competitive Cubs rotation.
“I think what he showed us at the end of the year last year, what he could do as a starter I think is what intrigues us the most,” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. “We know what he can be out of the bullpen, but starters are the premium. When you have a guy that has that kind of stuff that can show you he can maintain that over the course of five, six innings, those are the types of guys you’re looking for.
“I think we really want to give him every opportunity right now to get stretched out and show us kind of, one, what he can do, but also, two, just piggyback on what he did last year.”
Steele has already started building off that last start of the year this spring. He took the bump for Chicago’s third Cactus League game against San Diego on Saturday, tossing two no-hit innings at Sloan Park. Steele said after that he is already built up to throw 30-35 pitches but he only needed roughly 22 to get through seven Padres batters.
“Going out there and doing it, seeing it with your own eyes that you’re able to do it definitely helps build the confidence,” Steele said.
And when he went to his breaking balls, well, take a look:
Last season, Steele threw either a curveball or slider on only a combined 32.1 percent of his pitches (per Baseball Savant), but they’re also the pitches that finished off 25 of his 59 strikeouts. And as you can see from that video, Steele certainly appears to already have a solid feel for the breaking ball.
That success with his full repertoire now is what’s going to keep building on the Cubs’ confidence in him after what they saw in 2021.
“I thought he turned a corner last year, to be honest,” manager David Ross said last week. “A lot of these guys, it’s just about being able to stay healthy and perform, and when you see the flashes of the performance they can have when they’re healthy, then you just want to try to keep them that way, right? And he’s one of those guys, like, his stuff is electric. When you watch him pitch, as you watch him evolve, as you watch him mature, the way he goes about his business, the way he attacks hitters. Being able to see what he was capable of last year was really encouraging.”
Steele didn’t make his big league debut until April 12, 2021, nearly seven years after Chicago drafted him in the fifth round of the 2014 MLB Draft. Being drafted straight out of George County High School (Miss.) and a 2017 injury that required Tommy John surgery delayed his rise to the big leagues.
When Steele finally got there, it was as a bullpen arm last season, and he had plenty of success, posting a 2.03 ERA, a .149 average and a 1.05 WHIP in 11 appearances.
“I think last year when he made it to the big leagues, those first experiences coming out of the bullpen, he had a lot of success being, like, the long guy out of the bullpen, and I saw a lot of growth for him,” said Adbert Alzolay, who played with Steele through High-A ball and considers him among his best friends on the team.
A right hamstring strain in May put him on the shelf for a little over a month, but the Cubs had seemingly seen all they needed to see from him. Steele was sent rehab at Triple-A Iowa at the end of June, was built back up as a starter, and made his first start for the Cubs on Aug. 10.
“I think going through what he went through last year, proving to himself, one, that he can do it and he has the stuff to compete, and two, that he did it as a reliever and then again as a starter,” Hottovy said. “Knowing what it takes physically to get through a full season checked off a lot of boxes for him. So I think he’s in a great place. I think he’s super confident in what he can do, and he just wants to go out and prove that he can do it again.”
The one hangup is that, as Ross pointed out Saturday, Steele still has an option left. If Steele is on the outside of the rotation looking in when the season starts, there’s a chance Chicago could send him back down to Iowa to allow him to stay on a starter’s schedule and make sure the team has that starting pitching depth.
But after getting a full taste of the big leagues, Steele wants even more. He’s said constantly that he’s willing to do what the Cubs need from him, whether that’s as a starter or working out of the ‘pen as a multi-inning weapon.
Three weeks from now, Steele would certainly like to see himself in the rotation. Chicago has brought in a few arms that could eventually stretch out to meet a starter’s workload, though, and that could be a blow to Steele’s ambitions.
But overall Steele doesn’t need to be a starter to be content. Really, he just wants to stay in a Cubs uniform.
“It’s their job to make a roster that’s gonna compete, and you know they’re gonna do what they see (is the) best fit for the team,” Steele said. “However they want to use me as far as all that stuff goes, let them make that decision. I’m ready to rock with it. I just want to help the team win ballgames.”
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