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Q&A with Cubs ace Justin Steele: Building on breakout year, state of Cubs pitching and more

Ryan Herrera Avatar
March 14, 2024

Fresh off a breakout 2023 season, Justin Steele is looking for an even better 2024 with the Cubs.

He didn’t quite reach his goal of pitching 180-plus innings but he did hit his other goal of making at least 30 starts, and he finished the year earning a fifth-place finish in National League Cy Young voting.

So, what does 2024 have in store for him and the Cubs? How did he use last season to influence his work this winter? What does he think of the moves that were made, from the players to the manager, to get the team set in place?

In a sit-down interview with CHGO at Cubs spring training in Mesa, Ariz., Steele discussed a variety of topics, ranging from how it feels to be called an “ace” to how he’s attacked the offseason to the importance of bringing Cody Bellinger back for another year.

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

You’re coming off a 2023 season that, by the end of it, people were calling you the “ace.” What does a name like that mean to you?

It really means a lot. I’m glad people look at me in that light. That’s a really good honor and everything. For me, I don’t necessarily look at it like that. I kind of look at it as I just want to be a guy the team, fans, everyone can depend on to go out there and give you quality earnings each time out. I just want to be known for my consistency, and last year, I put a lot of work towards that. I did a pretty good job of it, and I want to do a better job of it this year.

You obviously had goals going into last season. How do you feel like you accomplished them?

I accomplished a lot of stuff I wanted to. It was a really good year and stuff. Yeah, I wanted to get to 180 innings. There was the two-start break I had earlier in the season, so I think I definitely could’ve gotten to 180 without that hiccup or if I had another start, so I was on pace for right where I wanted to be. I just kind of want to repeat what I did last year: 30-33 starts and get over that 180-inning threshold, possibly pitch 200.

You can sort of call 2023 your “breakout year.” How are you looking at 2024?

I just want to make sure my body and everything’s in a good position for the season. We did a good job of that last year. We worked really hard last offseason for that season. We did a lot of similar things this offseason. As far as working on myself, I did a few things. I did a lot of work on my two-seam and my changeup, just to have two more offerings. I wanna get them pitches to the confidence level of my other pitches, and that would just open some more doors for me, have more doors for success.

A big addition for you guys in the rotation is Shota Imanaga. A couple weeks into spring training now, what have you seen from him as far as gelling in the clubhouse or his work?

He’s already very comfortable in the clubhouse. Everyone talks to him every day. Everyone enjoys being around him. He’s a great clubhouse presence. I think he’s gonna be a lot of fun. I think he’s gonna end up being a fan favorite. He’s just really good energy, really good vibes about him, and yeah, I mean, the stuff kind of speaks for itself. Just a really good heater, really good breaking stuff, and then has a good changeup/splitter to break off of everything. He’s the whole package, and I think it won’t take him long to figure out how to pitch in this league.

What does adding him bring to the rotation?

Just the one through five. You think of a one-through-five rotation, and I would say a lot of the guys we have, you roll them out there and you feel pretty good about winning the ballgame that day. That’s what you want throughout an entire rotation. You don’t want it to be top heavy, back heavy. You want the whole rotation to be able to go out there and win a game any given day, and I feel like that’s exactly where we’re headed.

One of the bigger things that’s happened is re-signing Cody Bellinger. You guys talked all offseason about how much you loved having him around last year. What does bringing him back do for you?

There’s something to be said about somebody that you went through a battle with. Towards the end of the season, we were grinding, trying to get in the playoffs, and he was a big part of that and stuff. To have that gel and that mesh already beforehand, and now it seems like you’re bringing in a free agent but it’s just a guy you played with last year, it’s really cool. It’s good to have him back. Everyone in the clubhouse is super excited to have him back. And I mean, we all saw what he did last year and how important he was to the team. We all expect him to do it again, and we envision ourselves being in a really good spot because of it.

Yeah, so in theory it should always be a good thing to bring in a free agent, but when it’s one of your own guys, there is a bit of a different feeling.

No doubt. No doubt about it, because you instantly just think back to last season and being in the locker room with him all the time, having those conversations, getting to know him as a teammate, as a person and everything. And yeah, it means a little bit more, it’s a little more special when you bring somebody back.

You and Adbert Alzolay have been great friends for a long time. What did you see from him last year, attacking that closer role and really thriving in it?

You said it right there: He just attacked the role. He grabbed it by the horns. That’s just the kind of person he is. He grabs anything in life by the horns and attacks it head on. That’s the kind of person he is. He’s a competitor, and he’s one of them guys you want out there at the back end of the game, shutting the door, closing games out and stuff. I’m one of them people when it comes to Adbert, I believe in him 100 percent, no matter what the situation is. You could roll him out there to start games. I mean, the guy was a starter. He’s that talented, he has that good of stuff, and the competitor and the person is even better.

For a decade or so, there was the idea that the Cubs couldn’t develop pitching. You and Adbert started changing that narrative, but even guys like Jordan Wicks who are now debuting are helping. How have you seen the system’s pitching evolve over the last few years?

I would say there was a switch in the narrative around the pitching and the Cubs’ farm system and everything about the time me and Adbert started getting to the big leagues and started having success. I don’t know if it was in part due to guys seeing homegrown guys get to the big leagues with the Cubs, and it kind of made it seem more feasible and stuff. I remember coming through the minors, and the guys in the big leagues were just studs: Yu Darvish, Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks. Like, just names. It seemed like the big leagues was super far away, because you’re looking at those guys like, ‘There’s no way I’m taking their spots.’ But I think the switch happened, like, you start seeing me, Adbert, Jordan Wicks, other homegrown guys get to the big leagues with the team that drafted them, the Cubs. I think it kind of opened up a little more, not wiggle room, but it just kind of seemed like it was more feasible to get there. You can do it quicker and stuff like that. I think that could’ve played a role in it. And I just think the overall talent level in our farm system is really good right now, too. I mean, we got so many guys who I would say is big-league-talent ready. We’re in a good spot, because we have a lot of guys that are in that position. Young guys, guys who are proven that are already here, so it’s gonna be an interesting year.

Another big change this winter was hiring Craig Counsell as manager. One, what’s it been like getting to know him, and two, what was your reaction to hearing the pitching coaches were sticking around?

I’m loving Counsell so far. Everyone is. Camp’s been running smoothly. Everybody’s enjoying it. We like what we’re working on and stuff. I was really excited to have [pitching coach] Tommy [Hottovy]. That was kind of my first thought when the news broke was kind of like, ‘All right, is this gonna be a complete overhaul? Is this is gonna be just him? Are a few guys staying?’ So, I was really excited when a lot of the pitching staff was coming back and stuff, especially Tommy. Me and Tommy just have such a good connection at this point. He’s been here when I was called up, he’s worked with me through my career and stuff, so we have a good understanding of one another.

If a fan asked you right now, “What should we expect from the 2024 Chicago Cubs,” what would you tell them?

I would say right now, just on paper, I would say we’re better than we were last year. We got the young guys coming up who are gonna contribute at some point during the season. That’s gonna be a big help. Getting Belli back is obviously a huge help. We had him last year, so that’s production that we’re gonna be bringing from last year. We just have a lot of the same guys in the clubhouse, and we just have a really good bond. It’s like Counsell was saying; it’s kind of like a spiderweb in there. There’s each corner of the clubhouse, everyone’s connected, and I feel like that’s the way we’re headed.

I’ve got one more for you. I know you’re a big football fan, and the people in Chicago want to know: What should the Bears do with the No. 1 overall pick?

I think I’m on the minority with this: I’ve been saying keep [Justin] Fields and do trades in the direction of getting help around him. Like, trade the No. 1 pick to somebody that wants it and maybe get three picks in that first round, maybe get some offensive line helpe, maybe grab one of them top-three receivers. I think that would be a good start. Get one on them top receivers, good offensive linemen to protect Fields, and then the defense is always good. The Bears were a lot of fun to watch last year, and I really enjoyed watching them. I think you know what you got with Fields. You got an uber athlete. I think they keep building around, but I’m not in that position.

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