I can hear the skepticism now, and I understand it: oh, so the solution to the Cubs bullpen problems is a guy who had a 5.59 ERA in 38.2 Double-A innings last year?
The Cubs aren’t calling up Justin Steele today to save the bullpen, but merely to try something out before rosters potentially reduce from 30 to 28. Steele was one of just four options available to the Cubs as a guy on their 40-man roster hanging out in South Bend, with righties Adbert Alzolay, Jharel Cotton, and Tyson Miller being the other three. But there’s also real reason to believe in the upside here.
According to a source, Steele has been stretched out in South Bend to about four or five innings. He gives the team another long reliever (to go with the recently recalled Colin Rea), but also another left-handed arm. He’s also a guy that the team is likely anxious to try out in short relief pitching primarily to left-handed hitters; last year in Tennessee he held LHH’s to a .231/.355/.250 batting line.
One thing the Cubs have in Steele immediately is one of best left-handed pitchers alive at spinning the baseball. His spin rates for his fastball, slider, and curveball are all elite, and should rank near the top 10 in MLB left-handed pitchers right out of the gate. The Cubs will continue to work with Steele to maximize the efficiency of that spin, and to build gameplans for those pitches to actually succeed. When that spin is doing its work well, Steele has fantastic late life on his pitches, particularly the fastball.
The thing to watch is going to be – and I’m sorry to tell you this given the bullpen this season – fastball command. First and foremost, because this is a guy making his Major League debut, it’s especially on the radar. Indeed, he had some nervous command even in his big league Spring Training debut a few months ago. When Steele returned from Tommy John surgery in 2018, he did so with increased velocity, dialing it up to 96 mph semi-regularly. He also did so with a fantastic 7% walk rate, exploding back onto prospect lists in the process.
But as I wrote last December, his 2019 season was decidedly more up and down. A torn oblique cost him the majority of the season, and he’d been fighting his fastball command prior to that. A ridiculous .404 BABIP is really to blame for that 5.59 ERA, as his FIP checked in at a far more normal 3.76. The velocity was a bit up and down, and can really find itself anywhere from 90-96 mph. I’m expecting about 92-95 this week.
But one thing is very different from last year, and it is in part what led to Steele’s call-up today: the addition of a really intriguing slider to his repertoire. I’ve been hinting since July 2018 that Steele has been toying with it – even mentioning it in my prospect ranking before 2019 – and he’s confirmed that it’s now firmly a part of the repertoire.
So here’s what I expect. This is a guy with five pitches: four- and two-seam fastballs, slider, curveball, and changeup. I think we’re most likely to see the 4-seam, curve, and slider in the bigs. I would expect the curveball early in counts as a freeze pitch, and a balance between high fastball and slider with two strikes. The key is going to be whether he can command arm side; it’s the easiest way to tell when he’s out of whack.
This is our first indication the Cubs are going to be experimental with their bullpen moving forward, and while this is unlikely to be a magic elixir, I do think beginning to groom Steele for a bullpen role is a good use of a roster space. For the future, moreso than this week’s slate of games.