In 2014, the Cubs selected three high school pitchers in the first six rounds of the draft. They took Carson Sands, Justin Steele, and Dylan Cease back-to-back-to-back. Carson Sands is no longer with the organization. Dylan Cease was part of the deal that brought José Quintana to the Cubs. All that is left is Justin Steele. Steele had Tommy John surgery the first week of August in 2017, but he was able to come back this year. And what a comeback it was!
Steele first gained some national attention as a Cubs prospect in 2015 when Keith Law of ESPN had him as one of his sleeper prospects in the organization. That summer saw Steele pitch well at Eugene and, heading into 2016 at South Bend, Justin was seen as a top-10 prospect in the system.
That’s when the trouble started.
Steele struggled all of 2016 in the Midwest League with a 5.00 ERA. He came across as a pitcher who lacked confidence; it was almost as if he was afraid to attack the zone. He spent most of the season nibbling at the plate. Thankfully, that level of performance only lasted one year.
In 2017, Steele looked like a different pitcher at High-A Myrtle Beach. He attributed his wonderful summer to a new mental approach where he envisioned defeating the enemy throughout the day, and then by the time he stepped on the mound he had already won several times in his mind.
But at the end of July in 2017, Steele suffered an injury to his elbow that required Tommy John surgery. That surgery was in the first week of August.
It usually takes a while to come back from Tommy John, but Steele shocked everyone when he was throwing in extended spring training. In July, he actually started throwing in games that mattered with the Cubs 1 team in Mesa. He started off small, going two or three innings, and by the end of July he was going five strong almost every night.
At the end of July, he was back in Myrtle Beach and doing magnificently well. He made four starts for the Pelicans and threw 18.1 innings while striking out 19 with a 2.45 ERA. For the last two weeks of the 2018 season, Steele pitched at Double-A Tennessee. In his last start of the year, he went six strong, allowed just one run and striking out five.
One of the great things about his return is that he is back throwing 95 mph with ease. His curve has been very good at times. It seems to have a little harder bite than it did before, and some of the loop has gone out of it.
In total, he threw 46.2 innings with a 2.31 ERA. Now, Steele finds himself on his way to Mesa to pitch in the Arizona Fall League, starting on October 9. If he pitches once a week, that would be great. He could be a starter or long reliever, giving him about 20 to 30 more innings to make up for the three months that he lost this year. I look forward to seeing how he does against elite competition.
Ultimately, the goal is to get Steele ready to pitch in Chicago. Even with going to the Arizona Fall League, Steele will more than likely start 2019 in Tennessee. How much time he spends there depends on how strong his elbow is after this offseason. Steele’s comeback has cemented that he is now the number one left-handed pitcher in the upper minors. It’s one thing to come back and just play after TJS, it’s been another come back and to dominate. It is almost as if he has been reborn.
Lead photo of Justin Steele courtesy of the Tennessee Smokies.