Cubs’ Justin Steele took winding path to earn first Opening Day start

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MESA, Ariz. — On Friday afternoon, Chicago Cubs manager Craig Counsell brought Justin Steele into his office and had what he described as a “serious” conversation with the left-handed starter. This wasn’t to deliver any ominous news or put a scare into Steele. Rather, it was to deliver some news that many around camp had already assumed since the start of spring: Steele would be the team’s Opening Day starter.

“It’s a reflection of what a player’s done throughout his career and where he’s built himself to,” Counsell. “Justin’s got himself to a great place. It’s something you earn. I think that’s important for the player. That’s why it’s such a good feeling. More than the day to me, it speaks to what the player’s earned and accomplished.”

Steele is slated to throw the first pitch of the Cubs season on March 28 in Arlington against the defending World Series champion Texas Rangers. Counsell believed the conversation has to be serious because earning an Opening Day start is a moment in a player’s career to reflect on how one got to such a wonderful point. This result for Steele wasn’t always so obvious as he was coming up through the minors.

Steele was drafted in the fifth round of the 2014 draft by the Cubs out of George County High School in Lucedale, Miss. as an over-slot signee. His climb up the ladder was hardly seamless. Steele battled numerous injuries, including Tommy John surgery in late 2017. By the middle of 2019, he was barely on the prospect radar, not even among the organization’s top 30 prospects according to Baseball America.

Things shifted for Steele in the summer of 2020. With the minor-league season shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Steele worked with the Cubs revamped pitching development department at the alternate site to tweak his arsenal. There was less focus on the curveball that helped him get drafted. His sinker became more of an afterthought.

Steele now features one of the most unique cut-ride fastballs in the game and pairs it with a devastating slider. It helped lead to him having a strong debut as a reliever in 2021. His conversion to the rotation was bumpy, but a few months into 2022, he seemed comfortable and ready to explode. His true breakout came last summer when he posted a 3.06 ERA in 173 1/3 innings and finished fifth in the National League Cy Young Award voting.

“It’s not always going to be pretty or how you thought (it would be),” Steele said. “Sometimes you just gotta put your head down and get through the tough times.”

Steele is the first homegrown Cubs Opening Day starter since Jeff Samardzija. For a team that has spent the better part of the past decade trying to shed the label of being unable to develop pitching internally, Steele is one of the first shining examples of the organization turning the corner.

“Developing starting pitching, I think it’s every organization’s goal and dream,” Counsell said. “It’s just hard to do. As much as anything, it’s hard to be patient with it. In Justin’s case, there certainly was some organizational patience, but he’s taken some big steps forward at times and put himself in this position. Certainly it’s an organizational goal to develop players like Justin and a lot of credit goes to Justin.”

Kyle Hendricks, who made three straight Opening Day starts for the Cubs from 2020-2022, knows how it feels to earn the nod to take the ball at the start of the season.

“It validates all the things you’ve been doing in the past,” Hendricks said. “It validates what the organization thinks about you and what role they want you to play. You’re going out as ‘The Guy.’ We’re going to be leaning on you all season.”

Hendricks watched as Steele made a quick impression on the team when he arrived in 2021. He displayed a toughness and competitive nature that immediately stood out to the group.

“Going out for game one and setting the tone, there’s no better guy to do it,” Hendricks said. “The way he attacks and gets after, I’m so excited for game one and I know the fans are going to be too. It’s going to be electric, good energy in there.”

Behind Steele in the rotation will likely be Hendricks, Jameson Taillon and Shota Imanaga with Jordan Wicks, Javier Assad, Hayden Wesneski and Drew Smyly all competing for the final spot. Taillon was scheduled to make his 2024 Cactus League debut on Saturday after only pitching on the back fields this spring but was scratched with lower back tightness.

“Just locked up on him about 10 pitches into the mound portion of the warmup,” Counsell said. “Hope to know more tomorrow, see what happens overnight.”

Counsell said the hope is it’s just a spasm and quickly goes away, that nothing like this had bothered Taillon previously this spring and there were no plans for imaging on his back at this time. A team source indicated that this issue has popped up for Taillon during his career in the past and while it’s painful initially, it often is gone entirely after a few days.

Assuming Taillon’s back issue is nothing but a bump in the road as he ramps up for the regular season, the Cubs are confident in the depth of their rotation. There is an awareness that they currently lack a truly dominant ace, but feel Steele and Imanaga can both pitch like No. 2 starters and Taillon and Hendricks are quality mid-rotation pieces backed up by young talent with upside.

After looking like a postseason lock in early September, the Cubs’ playoff hopes fizzled as they went 12-16 in the season’s final month. The hope is that a deeper roster led by one of the game’s best managers and backed up by a top farm system with talent ready to reach the highest level will lead to a more satisfying finish in 2024.

“I’m looking forward to Opening Day,” Steele said, “and maybe a special season.”

(Photo: Matt Dirksen / Getty Images)

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