While Dylan Cease has been grabbing headlines with his 95-100 mph fastball, Justin Steele has been quietly going about his business. Steele was drafted just ahead of Cease when the Cubs went out and bet on a collection of high school arms in the 2014 draft. Along with Carson Sands and the just-released Austyn Willis, the Cubs spent a lot of money on players who they knew would take several years to develop. Steele is currently ranked in the low-to-mid teens on most prospect lists and he will be South Bend to begin the 2016 campaign.
This is Year Three as a Cub for Steele and it is going to be quite a different campaign. In 2015, Steele did well at short-season Eugene. He made 10 starts, pitched 40.2 innings, and struck out 38 while walking 15 with a very solid 2.89 ERA. He did miss 2 starts in late July and early August, but he came back to make three shorts starts of two innings apiece. I did get see one of his games in July on MiLB.TV and I came away extremely impressed with his breaking ball. While his fastball sat 89-91 most of the night, his breaking ball baffled hitters with its tight spin and late break. It’s a definite out pitch.
Going from short-season ball to low-A is a huge adjustment, physically and mentally. With its 144-game schedule and chilly nights in April and May, playing at South Bend tests young prospects in ways they haven’t seen before. It’s this sort of jump that really turns a player into a professional. As for the pitching, the young lefty can expect to make 25 starts and approach 100-120 innings. That’s a big increase, one some players never make. In order for Steele to get there, he will have to take care of himself like never before, including watching his diet and fitness to stay energized over the longer season.
Steele has been getting raves about his game for over a year though, so actually playing the game may be the easiest part of moving to low-A baseball. Heading into 2015, MLB Pipeline said the following of his potential:
Steele’s stuff fluctuated wildly on the summer showcase circuit in 2013, but he solidified it as a high school senior and maintained it during his pro debut. He’s capable of reaching back for 95 mph on his fastball, but he gets more life and is often more effective when he pitches at 88-92 mph.
Steele is adding more power to his curveball, which already featured good depth and could give him a second plus pitch. He has some fade to his changeup but sometimes tips it off by slowing his arm speed, a correctable flaw. He’s athletic but lacks size and true command, so some scouts believe he’ll wind up in the bullpen.
I thought it was a little early to project him as a either a reliever, especially when he already has two plus pitches. One year later, his progress was described by MLB Pipeline as such:
Steele attacks hitters with three pitches that grade as solid or better when at their best. He sits at 91-92 mph and reaches 95 with his fastball, which generates groundballs with its sink and run. He can miss bats with his curveball, which has good depth and is getting more consistent, and also has a deceptive change with fade.
Steele isn’t the most physical pitcher, and his control and command are still works in progress, so there’s some thought that he’ll wind up as a reliever. But as an athletic lefty with a three-pitch arsenal and a strong competitive streak, he could develop into a mid-rotation starter.
I find it interesting how much he developed, at least according to these Pipeline breakdowns, in just one year. The reliever comment is made again in the most recent evaluation, but I can see why Pipeline (Jim Callis and Johnathaon Mayo) would make it. However, what Steele still needs most is more game experience in order to develop his pitches fully. He is going to get that in 2016 as a starter.
The thing that you have to remember is the huge variance in innings and development between levels. His body will be pushed to its limits. Having never pitched more than 40.2 innings before, the Cubs will likely limit the length of his starts when he gets between 80-100 innings, or they could limit them early and let him build up innings over the course of the year. There’s a lot of stress that is put on an arm over a 144-game season, especially at only 20 years old.
As part of a highly-touted pitching staff at South Bend, Steele is expected to do well. But that doesn’t mean he won’t still need some time to continue to develop. He will have his good starts, bad starts, in-between starts, and rainouts that force him off his schedule. The key is learning to adapt to this level and to take constructive criticism well. The batters in low-A are a little more disciplined than those in short-season ball and they won’t chase the high fastball or the curveball down and away quite as often. Well, the might, but they won’t be in the Midwest League very long. For Steele to find success at South Bend, he just needs to follow the recipe for any good pitcher: get ahead in the count, hit your spots, keep the leadoff hitter off base, and keep the hitters guessing.
Steele has the pitches he needs to do well at this level. It’s important that he learns to adjust to a new type of hitter and a new type of experience at South Bend. He also needs to gain better command and control of all his pitches, to be able to throw any pitch in any part of the zone in any count. Sometimes it takes a few months, as it did with Trevor Clifton, while others get it right away. Let’s hope Steele is among the latter group.