Justin Steele showed he was a big-time prospect after being drafted out of George County High School in the fifth round back in 2014. The southpaw used his mid-90’s gas and a nice hook to move through a new level of the system each season, but there was one persistent issue. Steele just couldn’t stay healthy enough to accumulate serious innings.
He went from 18.2 innings in rookie ball the summer he was drafted to 40.2 in short-season Eugene the following year to 77.1 for Low-A South Bend. Then he upped the tally to 98.2 innings at High-A Myrtle Beach — in case you missed it, the Cubs flipped their A-levels and lost Eugene — and appeared to be trending up. That’s when injuries started to take their toll.
Steele totaled only 85.1 innings at three different levels across 2018 and ’19 as he worked his way back, culminating with a mere 38.2 innings for Double-A Tennessee. He was a member of the 40-man roster by then, though, and the Cubs had kept him in a starting role throughout the spotty results so it was clear they believed in his talent.
“The upside is legitimate as a left-hander that’s really athletic with a great arm,” Matt Dorey, the Cubs’ senior director of player development, said at Cubs Convention in January of 2020. “He has a chance for two plus pitches, the changeup has a chance to come as well.
“It’s a matter of just keeping healthy and having an extended amount of time to work through some delivery issues. He fights his delivery at times and strikes will come and go.”
Things didn’t quite go according to plan last season, as you might have heard, and the prevailing thought was that Steele would be converted to a relief role in order to let his stuff play up. That was indeed the case once baseball resumed fully this season, with the lefty coming up and making an instant impact out of the Cubs’ bullpen.
In 11 relief appearances, Steele had a 2.03 ERA with 21 strikeouts over 13.1 innings while showing a little fire and proving he was capable of handling big innings in the big leagues. Then came another injury, though this one may actually turn into a way for Steele to get back into a starting role. He went on the IL in late May with a hamstring issue, during which time a confluence of other events put the Cubs in a position to change tack.
After initially working in relief during his rehab stint, Steele was placed in the Iowa Cubs’ rotation and remained there after being activated from the IL. Through three Triple-A starts, he has gone 10.2 innings with a 0.85 ERA with 14 strikeouts and just one earned run allowed on three hits. His most recent outing saw him log four innings, his longest start of the season so far.
Justin Steele likely done for the night after his longest start of the year with the @IowaCubs (4 innings).
Finishes it off with a 97 mph fastball and a nasty backdoor curveball to strikeout Oscar Gonzalez to end the frame.
Final line: 4 IP, 2 H, 2 R, 1 ER, 4 K. 71 pitches.
— Alex Cohen (@voiceofcohen) July 24, 2021
He also put up big numbers on the radar gun, touching 98 mph early on and sitting 96-97 throughout. That kind of velo will play, particularly for a Cubs rotation that has far too little of it and may have an opening or three come August 1.
Justin Steele gets the first batter of the game swinging on a fastball at 98 MPH (!)
— Greg Huss (@OutOfTheVines) July 23, 2021
Steele might not be ready to go seven innings or even close just yet, but he’s getting stretched out for what will almost certainly be a remade roster after the deadline. Even if Jed Hoyer doesn’t hold a huge sell-off, it’s clear the Cubs’ competitive perspective has shifted heavily to the future.
Jake Arrieta going to the IL was about more than just a balky hamstring and his return to active duty is questionable at this point. Zach Davies is only on a one-year deal, same with Trevor Williams, so Hoyer is going to want to get a look at what he’s got in the system. In addition to his potential on the mound, Steele represents big potential savings on the free agent pitching market.
Depending on how things shake out, it’s entirely possible the 26-year-old will get one more start late next week for Iowa before rejoining the Cubs, perhaps for a start in their series at the Rockies. Though not normally a ballpark in which you’d want to give a guy his MLB starting debut, Colorado is a weak team that may be without Trevor Story by then.
Even if the timeline is a little different, it certainly appears as though Steele will be starting for the Cubs at some point this summer.