Spring training is officially in the books and the Chicago Cubs have their starting rotation set. Kyle Hendricks is set to take Opening Day with Marcus Stroman, Drew Smyly, and Alec Mills taking spots three through five. In that crucial number two spot to start, though, is Justin Steele. Coming off his first stint in Chicago, he’s looking to make that crucial step forward to earn a permanent spot in the North Side five.
In regards to the starting rotation, Steele stands out as arguably the most intriguing arm the Cubs will throw out there. Compared to his four rotation-mates (along with Wade Miley and Adbert Alzolay who are both injured), he’s still a relatively unknown entity and offers a different look coming from the left side with a little higher velocity. In just 69 innings last year, he made a decent impression with a respectable 4.26 ERA and 1.351 WHIP, though the ERA rose to 4.95 as a starter.
Where he really starts to shine is on his Statcast page. While he certainly has a control issue, he shines with a fastball that lands in the 93rd percentile in spin, a barrel rate in the 82nd percentile, and red all over the page in general. It all served to put his expected numbers a good bit better than his actual production with an xERA of 4.05. Furthermore, he improved significantly as he got used to the starting role with a solid 4.35 ERA and a lower OPS against in September and October.
Justin Steele gives the Cubs a different look but needs time to find his footing
As much as Steele has promise, it’d be unreasonable to see him take on the workload of his more experienced peers immediately. For his first start against the Brewers, he’s more than likely to stay within that four-inning piggyback range between Hendricks and Stroman. From there, we could see someone like Jesse Chavez help finish out with a multi-inning relief appearance.
ZiPS and Steamer projections reflect the fluidity in Steele’s role and the unlikelihood of him immediately getting anywhere near a full workload. The rosiest projections max him out at around 76 innings pitched with the young lefty flipping between the rotation and the bullpen to get work in. What’ll really decide whether he beats those projections are his first few starts while Miley is out. If he proves himself a stable arm, he’ll earn himself a longer leash starting for the Cubs.
As he builds himself up at the Major League level, it wouldn’t be too much to hope for an ERA in the mid-to-low 4.00 range again, especially if he can cut down the walks we saw in spring and continue to limit the longball. His performance down the stretch last year shows how he can adapt, with his home run rate going down throughout the final two months.
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Steele will be a bit of an X-factor in the rotation. It’s hard to see him giving the same length as Hendricks, Stroman, or Miley, but the stuff is there for him to be a solid starter in his own right. Like the other swingmen on the Cubs roster, he’ll be battling all the way to keep his spot as a starter, but it’s hard not to see him growing into the role as the season winds on.