As the season rolls on like a broken down car with a boot on a tire, the Chicago Cubs are in search of some much-needed optimism and hoped to find some in Justin Steele. The left-hander quickly climbed from Rookie ball all the way to to Double-A Tennessee in 2018, posting a 2.31 ERA in 46 2/3 innings across all levels combined. Starting the year in 2019, Steele struggled quite a bit with a 5.59 ERA in 38 2/3 innings.
After losing the entirety of the 2020 season due to the pandemic, Steele bounced back in a big way early this year, finding his best stretch of success before going down with a hamstring injury. He pitched 13 1/3 frames and had a 2.03 ERA for the big league club. The future looked to be bright for the 26-year-old southpaw.
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After being activated and sent to Iowa in June, Steele hurled 27 1/3 innings to the tune of a 1.32 ERA, 0.988 WHIP and a healthy 9.5 strikeouts per nine innings. Steele garnered plenty of hype ahead of his call-up and the Cubs announced he would make his debut as a starter against the Milwaukee Brewers on August 10.
During that rotation debut, he tossed five innings of three-run ball, allowing five hits and one base on balls while striking out one. It wasn’t until the fourth inning that he got hit hard and then rebounded nicely throwing a fifth scoreless frame. Ultimately, Steele would take the loss in that contest.
Since then, he faced Cincinnati at The Great American Ballpark, where he tossed four innings and gave up two earned. After only two starts and a total of nine innings combined, the theme quickly became evident. David Ross is giving Steele somewhat of a short leash. The hope is that he can work out a few kinks and show that he can get deeper into ball games.
In his third and most recent game, he was hit hard by Colorado, allowing four earned in 3 2/3 innings. Colorado is not a good team offensively with a -38 run differential. In total as a starter, Steele has pitched 12 innings and allowed nine earned runs. Though he has been solid as a reliever, it has been the tale of two tapes as a starter. Rightfully so, he deserves the rest of the season to prove that he can have value in the back end of the rotation. The Cubs simply don’t have anything to lose by letting him try to figure it out.
The fact is, Steele is a promising young arm who can be extremely valuable to any club looking for an above-average arm. His ERA has inflated due to a recent rough patch as he tries to figure it out as a starter, currently sitting on a 4.15 and 5.44 FIP.
The sample size he had as a reliever in the beginning of the year where he pitched 13 1/3 innings with a 2.03 ERA is just about the same size as the total number of innings pitched he has in his last three starts. Therefore, it will remain to be seen if he can make key adjustments and get deeper into ball games as a starting pitcher.
We’ll see how he plays out long-term. But the good news now is this Cubs team has nothing to play for and have nothing to lose by letting Steele learn through experience. He’s shown what he’s capable at times this year and even a worst-case scenario looks like the left-hander playing a relief role for years to come. Regardless, he’s got value to this club – however Ross decides to utilize him.