Cubs will give Justin Steele an opportunity in the rotation
As the Cubs’ position at the trade deadline comes into focus, they are keeping a keen eye on the future.
The development of young pitching will be paramount — for the rest of this year and beyond.
Justin Steele is a huge part of that equation and the Cubs will let the young southpaw try his hand at earning a spot in the rotation.
The Cubs activated Steele off the injured list Thursday afternoon and optioned him to Triple-A Iowa, where he will continue to work on stretching out as a starter.
“How far we stretch him out is yet to be determined,” Jed Hoyer said. “But certainly well more than like a 2-inning role. We’re gonna try to put him in a role where he can face the lineup a couple times. There’s no reason he can’t do it.
“Injuries have held him back a bit in his career but we saw what he could do when he was up here this year and healthy. He’s got great stuff — left-handed with a great fastball and multiple other weapons.”
Steele was on the injured list for over a month after coming out of a game on May 20 with a strained hamstring. He made 4 rehab appearances with Iowa, building up his workload each time out.
Wednesday night, Steele threw 47 pitches over 2.2 innings for the I-Cubs and will reportedly start Sunday’s game in Iowa:
Just spoke to LHP Justin Steele who said he’s starting Sunday’s game for the Iowa Cubs.— Tommy Birch (@TommyBirch) July 8, 2021
Steele made 11 appearances in the big-league bullpen earlier this season, working as both a short-burst reliever and in a multi-inning capacity. He turned in great results — 2-0, 2.03 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 14.2 K/9 — while pitching with some fire and intensity.
The 25-year-old has been one of the organization’s top pitching prospects since he was selected in the 5th round of the 2014 MLB Draft out of George County High School in Mississippi. Due to injuries — including Tommy John surgery in 2017 — and the pandemic, Steele has thrown just 327.1 minor league innings over his 8-year career.
Prior to 2021, Steele worked almost exclusively as a starter in the Cubs system. He went 0-6 with a 5.59 ERA in 11 starts with Double-A Tennessee in 2019.
The Cubs have been searching for stability in the rotation all season and will see if Steele can lock down a spot for the final couple months of the season.
“Sometimes, when a pitcher’s young like that, closing the door on starting is a mistake,” Hoyer said. “Plenty of guys have started out in the bullpen and ended up starting. I think he’s a guy that sort of got shortened up in part because of the injuries and now with him healthy, we can let him face a lot more hitters.”
Depending on how the next few weeks play out, the Cubs could opt to make a similar move with Keegan Thompson. Like Steele, Thompson was a starter in the minors but came up to Chicago to help the big league club as a reliever.
Thompson, 26, has been a big part of the Cubs bullpen over the last couple months and has mostly worked in short bursts so the organization would need to give him time to stretch back out into a starting role.
“I think both guys have the repertoire to do it,” Hoyer said last week in Cincinnati. “Bullpen roles are a great way to break into the big leagues. I actually really like breaking guys in in the bullpen because a lot of the times, they realize in that role that they can get big league hitters out, like, ‘Hey, I can carry my stuff more than 1 or 2 innings.'”
With Jake Arrieta now on the IL, the Cubs will have Trevor Williams start Sunday’s first-half finale heading into the All-Star Break. But we could see Steele join the rotation in the coming weeks.