With the Rule 5 protection reshuffling and non-tender deadline in the rearview, left-hander Justin Steele remains on the Cubs 40-man roster. This, despite the fact that the 2014 fifth-round pick’s 2019 consisted of a 5.59 ERA in 38.2 Double-A innings.
… and I think it’s a wise choice. What gives?
I actually think Steele is one of the best bets in the Cubs system to “break out” in 2020. I understand any cynicism that might accompany that prediction, be it at the Cubs pitching development history, or with Steele’s injury history. Tommy John surgery cost him the first half of 2018, and a torn oblique the second half of 2019. Of course, Steele needs to be healthy for any of this to matter. But I have been looking under the hood of Steele’s rough 2019, and I think that if he can reliably get to the mound, he’d a good bet to have more success.
I’m telling you, the overall numbers last year don’t offer you much useful information. Steele’s FIP and xFIP both came in nearly two points lower than his ERA, because his BABIP was a ridiculous .404. This doesn’t seem to be a result of harder contact, as his LD% was lower than in 2016 or 2017, and his Whiff Rate has remained consistent. It really feels like bad luck. I mean, look at these BABIP’s by hit type:
Line drives: .833
Outfield fly balls: .321
Infield fly balls: .100
Unsustainably high. Steele’s stuff is too good for balls to keep falling for hits at these rates.
With Steele, now 24 years old, principally that means two pitches. His backbone is a fastball that punches above its already-healthy velocity with that wonderful seemingly-rising effect.
I made a compilation of Justin Steele fastballs, mostly because my boss @BleacherNation loves few things more than some plus late life. And these, which run up to 95 mph, seriously feature that. pic.twitter.com/blrNHHdI7j
— Cubs Prospects – Bryan Smith (@cubprospects) December 3, 2019
If there’s a minus there, it’s that Steele’s command wasn’t tight enough in 2019. He wasn’t missing by much, but that arm-side corner could use more reliable control in key counts.
Steele’s curveball is one of the better breaking pitches in the Cubs’ system. It clocks in at an elite spin rate (nearly 3000 RPM), featuring something like 1-to-7 break, that Steele has the feel to play around with depending on what he needs from that particular pitch. You get a good feel for that in this at-bat:
Love this 5-pitch K from Justin Steele. Really get a feel for how tough he can be just with his preferred 2 pitches. A curve he can manipulate for strike or as chase pitch. A fastball with late life. Don’t be fooled by bad 2019 numbers, still a big league caliber arm developing. pic.twitter.com/Eol15qQthY
— Cubs Prospects – Bryan Smith (@cubprospects) December 2, 2019
The problem is that 2019 didn’t offer the chance for Steele to work on his other offerings. He didn’t have much of a Spring Training, made one start in Double-A and hit the Injured List for three weeks. Steele returned in late April with an awful-and-unlucky five-start stretch: 14.2 IP, 25 H, 11.05 ERA, 6 BB, 14 K.
At that point, you’re fighting uphill. Steele leaned hard into the two-pitch mix after that, and was really good for five starts (2.21 ERA, 24 K in 20.1 IP) before the oblique injury. That Steele wasn’t able to get enough work with his change-up and a slider he’d toyed with in the AFL was the real cost of the lost time.
And this is where we get to the injuries, because you can’t just ignore them. Steele has now averaged just 64.1 innings per year in his five full professional seasons. He has just two minor league option seasons left, and if he were outrighted off the 40-man, he would be a minor league free agent at season’s end. If the plan is to build Steele up to be a 150-inning-per-year Major League guy by 2022, I worry there’s just too little time and too much margin for error.
The Cubs, to their detriment in my view, have been loathe to move starting pitching prospects to the bullpen in the past. Duane Underwood didn’t move there until June this season, and he’s now out of options without the track record to feel confident about. Trevor Clifton reached minor league free agency and was never tried to see how his stuff might play up in short relief. Oscar De La Cruz, who always seemed destined for relief, wasn’t moved there until just before he was outrighted off the 40-man.
In 2020, as the season goes along, the Cubs have to be honest with themselves about the best role for Steele’s future. It’s probably the bullpen. And that’s okay, because the two-pitch mix above suggests he could be a force there – imagine a late-life fastball sitting in the mid-90s and occasional popping above that, paired with a plus curveball. That’ll play.
Even in the bad 2019, Steele at least held left-handed hitters to a .231/.355/.250 (27 K%) batting line. If by summer he moves to that role, I don’t think it’s impossible he helps in the Majors by September. Certainly in 2021.
In whatever role, I think Steele succeeds in 2020. He’s got the stuff, and he’s due for some luck.