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Prospect Profile: What Justin Steele brings to Cubs bullpen

2 years agoLance Brozdowski

The Cubs recalled Justin Steele from their South Bend facilities after the team placed reliever James Norwood on the injured list due to right shoulder inflammation. The move comes as the Cubs relievers entered play Monday with an 8.07 ERA.

Because the South Bend roster holds other relievers seasoned in the upper minors, Steele’s promotion comes as a surprise on the surface. But with praise from manager David Ross and the Cubs’ willingness to reward hard work and satellite site success, Steele is a logical choice to make an impact as a left-hander on a team in need of late-inning reinforcements.

Steele played high school baseball at George County in Lucedale, Mississippi, where he posted offensive stats that outweighed his pitching numbers during his senior year. The Cubs took notice of his athleticism and frame, drafting the left-hander 139th overall in 2014. Their first-round pick, Kyle Schwarber, agreed to an underslot deal, allowed the team to be aggressive on a high schooler like Steele. He pitched 18.2 innings at rookie ball in Arizona that year before starting 2015 with Class-A short season Eugene and heading to Class A South Bend in 2016.

Steele shined in 2017, posting a sub-3.00 ERA in over 90 innings with a knack for limiting home runs. But in August of that season, he underwent Tommy John surgery. His recovery period lasted roughly 11 months, right in the 10- to 13-month window most pitchers generally need to throw competitively again. He finished the 2018 season with a pair of starts at Double-A Tennessee where he struck out seven batters and walked three. 

In 2019, Steele started the year with extremely poor batted-ball luck as batters posted a BABIP above .400. This led to a 5.59 ERA across 38.2 innings despite a 3.76 FIP that showed his skills had not regressed as much as his surface-level statistics suggested. In late June, however, the team shut him down for the rest of the season with a right abdomen strain. 

Steele’s premiere offering is an above-average curveball, which could be considered the best hook in the system next to breakers like Adbert Alzolay’s. He also has a fastball that has spin-rate metrics attractive to the modern-day approach to pitching. The pitch sits in the low to mid-90s, but Steele has topped out as high as 97 mph post Tommy John surgery, a good sign that his velocity has returned and he has made a full recovery. Steele also features a changeup, which helps him against right-handed hitting and will likely be his third offering long term. 

A mix like Steele’s is one that generally profiles as a starting pitcher’s, but the depth and success of the Cubs’ rotation — even without Jose Quintana — pushes prospects like Steele into the bullpen. He’ll be able to work multiple innings and tick up his velocity in shorter spurts, but his mix becomes key to giving Ross confidence in using him when having to face three batters and most likely a pair of right-handed bats.

Steele figures to factor into a game in the near future, as the Cubs bullpen pitched into extra innings Sunday. His major league debut will be a glimpse at a live arm who has drastically increased his stock since his injury last season.

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