The Chicago Cubs utilized a draft strategy in 2014 that left some “experts” scratching their heads at the time.
Taking Kyle Schwarber 4th overall was arguably the biggest shocker of the entire draft. With players like Aaron Nola, Jeff Hoffman, and Michael Conforto all thought to be better players and better fits than Kyle Schwarber, many criticized the Cubs draft strategy after day one acknowledging Kyle’s bat but not seeing the fit when looking at Cubs needs as an organization.
We all know how that has turned out. Schwarber may be out for the season, but he is a key piece of this team’s future. A left-handed bat that will likely circle the bases some 40 times the first full season he plays and has the patience of a monk when staring down at an opposing teams ace.
What drafting Schwarber at 4 also allowed the Cubs to do was draft 3 “overslot” pitchers in rounds 4-6. We highlighted one of those pitchers in Dylan Cease here . Now, it is time to highlight another one in South Bend Pitcher Justin Steele.
Born in Lucedale, MS, Justin Steele went to high school in his hometown at George County. The Cubs would nab Justin Steele in the 5th round of the 2014 MLB draft and pay him a cool million signing bonus to put that cubbie “C” on the left side of his chest.
Going into the draft Justin Steele had already committed to pitch for UCLA so going well overslot(640K) was the only opportunity to get him to forego that type of a scholarship.
Prior to the 2014 MLB draft ESPN.com’s Keith Law had Justin Steele as the 85th overall best-available talent while Baseball America and MLB.com both placed him at 99th. Justin Steele spent 2014 with some added time in AZL as is typical for a high-school draftee pitcher. After 9 games and nearly 20 IP, 2015 would see Steele move on to the Cubs Low A affiliate Eugene Emeralds. In Eugene, Steele would impress striking out nearly 8.5/9 IP and walking 3.32 per 9 in 40 2/3 IP. Compiling a 2.66 ERA and a 2.84 FIP the Cubs were impressed enough to start him in 2016 in their class-A affiliate South Bend Cubs.
Justin Steele is a projectable lefty. He sits at 6’2″ and 195 lbs so there is some room for added bulk as he continues to progress through the Cubs system. He graded pre-2014 draft as a 40/55 Fastball, a 40/50 Slider, and a 35/50 Changeup. His fastball has touched low-mid 90’s early on but inconsistency with his velocity has been somewhat concerning. Oftentimes it will range between high 80’s to mid 90’s within the same inning. He is beginning to hone in on his velocity of late, however, as he has continued to build out his slender frame.
Since starting the year in South Bend Steele has bumped into some initial trouble for the first time in his professional career. Through his first 20 innings pitched he has a 7.08 ERA.
As Robert Killen highlighted in his piece on Trevor Clifton, however, stats are not as important early on in the development of a minor leaguer in the low levels. This holds especially true for a pitcher drafted straight out of high school.
While we are unsure on what exactly the Cubs have as Justin Steele’s pitching program for improvement, you can bet that fastball consistency with velocity and location is part of that plan. When that is the case, you will find minor league pitchers sometime’s getting whacked around as they move up the ranks initially only to see them improve dramatically within that same season. The reason for this is because the numbers and results are not as important as the process. If Steele can gain consistent velocity and command of his pitches, specifically locating his fastball, then who cares about his ERA in South Bend at the age of 20?
What we look at is how is he improving when it comes to strikeouts and walks as this is an indication of a pitcher learning his craft and how to control his pitches while also commanding those pitches within the strikezone. Learning to pitch as opposed to throw.
So far in South Bend, Justin Steele is striking out 10.18 batters per 9 innings pitched. For a guy who doesn’t have an overwhelming fastball as of yet, that is a very promising statistic as he has really honed in on improving his slider and change-up within the zone. He has also added a slurvy-curveball to complement his slider that has a little more drop to it. His ability to keep his arm action the same between the slider and slurve is appealing as that has added to his ability to keep opposing hitters off balance and guessing at the plate which makes his low 9o’s fastball seem a lot faster when it jumps out of his hand.
Steele has struggled with walking batters early on this season, however, as he is walking nearly 5 per 9 innings pitched. His continuous improvement on commanding his pitches within the strikezone and getting consistent with his velocity will be the two improvements we will be watching closely as the season progresses.
In his last outing against the Dayton Dragons on May 11th, Justin Steele showed improvement as he went 5 innings, matching his longest outing of the young season, and only gave up 2 hits while striking out 5 and walking only 2 batters. He threw 63 total pitches and 46 of those were strikes. That is the kind of improvement you hope to see as the season progresses.
There is no doubt that the Cubs have some nice position depth at the higher levels of the minor leagues. Within the next season-and-a-half it would be no surprise to see Albert Almora, Jeimer Candelario, Wilson Contreras, and Billy McKinney all making an impact in some way whether it be on the Cubs roster or as a key piece in a trade to acquire a player for the major league roster. However, something we at CubsChat are most excited about is the lower-level pitchers and how they are progressing. With Justin Steele, we see him with an upside of a mid-rotation starter in the Cubs rotation and with some added hike on his fastball and consistent command of the strikezone with his secondary pitches, he may be able to go beyond even that projection.