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Prospect Justin Steele could play a role for team in 2019

Chicago Cubs pitching prospect Justin Steele‘s fast track to the big leagues could make reach its destination at Clark and Addison during the 2019 season.

Adbert Alzolay, the team’s top overall prospect entering the 2018 campaign, was knocking on the Chicago Cubs’ doorstep this summer before a lat injury ended his season in June.

With the injury in his rearview mirror, one would expect Alzolay, 23, to make his MLB debut at some point in 2019. The right-hander is now the Cubs’ No. 4 prospect, according to Fangraphs.

Right behind Alzolay at No. 5 on Fangraphs’ rankings? Left-handed starting pitcher Justin Steele, who very well could join the Cubs alongside Alzolay at some point next year.

Like Alzolay, Steele is 23 and will turn 24 during the 2019 season. The Cubs drafted the latter in the fifth round of the 2014 MLB Draft; interestingly enough, the Phillies drafted slugger Rhys Hoskins three picks after Steele.

Solid in return to action after surgery

Steele has yet to pitch in Triple-A and underwent Tommy John Surgery in August 2017. However, he made a quick return to the mound, making 11 starts across multiple minor league levels in 2018.

In 11 starts with the Arizona League Cubs, Single-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Tennessee, the left-hander posted a 2.31 ERA. Steele only pitched 46 2/3 innings in his 11 starts, surely to not push him too hard following his return from surgery.

Limited action aside, opponents hit just .176 against Steele in 2018. He also struck out 53 batters compared to allowing just 13 walks, posting a stellar 0.900 WHIP.

Steele’s ERA jumped from 2.45 in four starts at Single-A to 3.60 in two starts with Double-A. His 5.79 ERA in six starts spanning 18 2/3 innings in the Arizona Fall League this year is also unsettling.

Reason to be excited

Overall, though, the sample size for Steele’s 2018 season is too small to overreact, just as the overall sample size is too small to say Steele will definitely succeed in the big leagues.

And yet, there is a reason to be excited about Steele. According to Fangraphs, Steele’s fastball sits 89-93 MPH but he was touching 95 in the AFL. Steele’s outlook, from Fangraphs:

“He was touching 95 in the fall and living in the low-90s with less life than his spin rate would indicate. He has an above-average curveball and will flash an average change and a pitch that looks like a cutter, but it may just be a variation of his changeup. He projects as a no. 4 or 5 starter.”

Fangraphs’ review of Steele is not all that glowing, but the fact that he should develop into an MLB starter is a positive sign for the Cubs. In 2018, only three pitchers drafted by the current front office pitched for the Cubs.

Help is on the way

Those pitchers (Duane Underwood, Rob Zastryzny and James Norwood) pitched a minuscule 20 2/3 innings in 2018. The fact that Steele is projected as a starting pitcher (albeit, a back-end starter) should be celebrated at 1060 W. Addison.

The Cubs’ 2019 starting rotation is all but set already; if healthy, Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Cole Hamels, José Quintana, Yu Darvish and Mike Montgomery will eat up the majority of the innings.

There is still room for Steele (and Alzolay) on the Cubs’ roster in 2019. Both could contribute as relievers once active rosters expand to 40 players, if not sooner in the season. After all, they’re both already on the Cubs’ 40-man roster.

Next: Cubs will face tougher NL Central in 2019

The Cubs added Steele to their 40-man roster in November, keeping him out of the Rule 5 Draft. While the chances he starts in 2019 are slim, him making his Cubs debut is a safe bet.

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