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Cubs Arizona Fall League player profile: Justin Steele

Here’s a Cubs pitching prospect who just might make it.

Larry Kave/Myrtle Beach Pelicans

EDITOR’S NOTE: Though the big-league Cubs season has ended, there’s still Cubs-related baseball this year. Eight Cubs prospects will be playing for the Mesa Solar Sox in the Arizona Fall League. AFL games begin Tuesday, and Tim will be presenting profiles of all the Cubs players on the Solar Sox before game action begins.

I was listening that night. Justin Steele had put up 12 successive 2017 starts with three or fewer earned runs. After a couple of “stone in the shoe” outings, he was on point during his August 1 start. He hadn’t allowed a hit, and had snapped one of his best breaking balls of the season. However, something wasn’t right. A pitcher doesn’t want to pull himself out when he’s pitching well. Broadcaster Scott Kornberg used the line nobody ever wants to hear. “Here comes the manager... along with the trainer.” Steele’s season was finished.

Steele’s resurgence was among the reasons that I think the narrative of the “Cubs pipeline is rather weak” is well overplayed. Steele isn’t likely to be a Top 100 type, ever. For instance, Kyle Freeland was never considered a major prospect. Why? Despite being a very early draft pick, and a left-handed starter, he wasn’t buzzing the ball up at 95. Hence, he was boring.

Which isn’t to say Steele is Freeland. Or boring. Steele has progressed quite well in the Cubs system, actually. Drafted in a “three-for-one” basket of prep selections in the 2014 Kyle Schwarber (and Freeland and Aaron Nola) draft, along with Carson Sands and Dylan Cease, Steele was often considered the third of the three.

A fifth-rounder from Lucedale, Mississippi, he was criticized by at least some for being a “soft-tossing lefty.” The hiccup was, while Steele’s velocity in high school was more high-80’s than low-90’s, he was a high school player. Preps tend to get bigger. When a pitcher gets bigger, and gets “coached up”, he tends to add velocity. Toss in that velocity tends to get overplayed anyway, and Steele was well worth a low-seven figure signing bonus.

His first two seasons were “good enough.” I’m of the mind that too much is read into early career numbers, both ways. Until the team has a specific reason to change course with a player (Speed him up/Slow him down/Change positions/Move to the bullpen/Release), they won’t.

In 2016, Steele had a 5.00 ERA in South Bend. He allowed well over a hit per inning, and walked 4.5 hitters per nine. Nonetheless, buoyed by a near strikeout-per-inning pace, he was a starter in Myrtle Beach the next season. Until August 1.

When you hear “Tommy John surgery,” you think “a year or more of recovery time.” This usually applies. However, I once asked a person who tracks pitching injuries a question about TJS.

Three main types of cases exist for the surgery. One is when the arm entirely blows up on the mound. It’s ugly, and continuing isn’t an option. In another, the pitcher has been pitching at reduced effectiveness. His numbers are weak, and his velocity might be off. He gets his wing checked, and the prognosis isn’t necessarily a surprise. The third is where he’s pitching well. However, something seems a bit off between starts. He gets it checked, just to see if there’s a problem.

My question was: “Is there a difference in the quality of recovery between the three options. This was apparently a question he hadn’t been asked before. Steele’s was still pitching well when lifted. His words were that he “felt a “pinch” or “pull” in his elbow.” Partly option one. Partly option three.


Steele began his minor league rehab (minor league players can rehab injuries in the Cubs system in either Mesa or Eugene. They don’t count against roster limits there) on July 3. Less than 11 months had expired since his last start. His five starts in Mesa went for three, three, four, four, and 4⅓ innings. (The most undervalued gauge for minor league pitching development is innings.)

About that time, the Cubs had made a flurry of trades. Myrtle Beach needed a starting pitcher. Before July was out, Steele had returned to Myrtle Beach, to resume pitching for the Pelicans. Which would have been an adorable climax to the season. Except, in two of his four starts, (5/3/5⅓/6 innings per), he allowed no earned runs. As he is Rule 5-eligible, the Cubs rolled the dice to let him get innings in Double-A in August.

His 10 innings with the Smokies in “the men’s league” saw him toss 10 more innings, allowing only eight hits. He fanned seven, and allowed only a run through six innings in his season finale.

The Steele story also tends to show how “fast and loose” the rules are in the Fall League. Teams usually send eight players. Four are hitters, and four are pitchers. One of the pitchers is designated a “starter.” As of a few weeks ago, the Cubs had announced their eight players. Steele wasn’t among them.

However, the Fall League is about player development, and it exists to benefit the 30 teams. Steele was added to the roster late. He figures to be the designated starter. Over the one month season, expect him to get five or six shortened starts. (With bullpens fifteen deep, and with the win or loss lagging in importance to development, four innings should suffice most games.)

Steele is a repertoire guy. He’ll go with the four basic pitches, though none are MLB-level, yet. Steele will be in line for a return to Tennessee in 2019. However, if the Iowa Cubs need a fill-in for their rotation, he might well be ready to move up by mid-May. And, yes, he has been in the mid-90s with his heater.

As Steele will likely be on the 40-man roster, look for him to probably pitch in Mesa in February. By then, he should be quite used to Sloan Park. He will have pitched there in July and October. Why not in March?

2018 may have been a bad Cubs season for you. For me, the pitchers in Myrtle Beach, Tennessee, and Iowa were so very good, the future of the pitching staff is looking as well-aligned as I can remember. Much better than that day in August 2017.