Cubs’ Justin Steele, Keegan Thompson key to remedying mistakes of last rebuild

Despite his final line in a loss to the Pirates, Steele and Cubs manager David Ross called the start Thursday one of the southpaw’s best this season.

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Cubs starter Justin Steele walks back to the mound after giving up an RBI single to the Pirates’ Tyler Heineman in the sixth inning Thursday at PNC Park.

Cubs starter Justin Steele walks back to the mound after giving up an RBI single to the Pirates’ Tyler Heineman in the sixth inning Thursday at PNC Park.

Justin Berl/Getty Images

PITTSBURGH — Cubs left-hander Justin Steele didn’t really start diving into analytics and using the pitch tracker Rapsodo in his bullpen sessions until he was at the team’s alternate training site in 2020, or maybe a little before. Those resources just weren’t available to him in the minor leagues to the extent they are now in the majors.

He describes them as a “turning point” in his development.

“Something I said when I first got called up last year was how much you learned in a short period of time up here,” he said. “It’s just stuff you can’t learn in the minor leagues because the whole time in the minor leagues, you’re trying to get up here, so you’re doing whatever it takes. That’s your main focus.”

Both Cubs manager David Ross and Steele called Steele’s start Thursday one of his best this season in terms of command and efficiency, although his stat line in the Cubs’ 8-7 loss to the Pirates in 10 innings was deceptive: six runs (five earned) and seven hits in 5 ⅔ innings because of defensive mistakes committed behind him. 

Steele’s importance to the rotation this year has been significant, and the continued development of homegrown pitchers such as him and Keegan Thompson is a crucial piece in the Cubs’ rebuild. Team president Jed Hoyer has talked about learning from the mistakes of the last cycle, with homegrown pitching the most glaring deficit during their stretch of success. 

“We had a really good six-year run,” Hoyer said last month. “But we didn’t sustain that success for quite as long as we hoped.”

The Cubs have adjusted with a player-development overhaul that started when they put Craig Breslow, now vice president of pitching, at the head of the pitching department in the fall of 2019. 

“That’s our main goal, basically — all the pitchers,” right-handed prospect Kohl Franklin said this spring of flipping the narrative surrounding the Cubs’ pitching development. “It’s always talked about, it’s always in the back of our minds, and it’s something we definitely want to change.”

Steele took it a step further.

“I’d say it’s already turned around at this point,” he said, pointing to himself and right-handers Scott Effross, Michael Rucker and Thompson, all of whom have been on the big-league roster at times this season. 

Steele and Thompson are at the forefront, having claimed starting spots. Although both have dealt with mechanical issues, they’ve recovered to anchor a rotation that’s currently missing three veterans because of injuries. 

Through the process, Steele has been taking advantage of the wealth of feedback he gets in each bullpen session.

“We always have Rapsodo out there, so I’m always looking at the numbers,” he said after the game Thursday. “If I like the way a pitch looks, I want to know exactly what I did on it.”

That’s why, when asked how the Cubs can maintain the development momentum, his mind went straight to offering young pitchers analytics earlier than he experienced.

Breslow also has been thinking about access to that information. 

“I think there are a few realities that have come to pass over the last few years,” Breslow said. “One is that players are going to get information. If they don’t get it from us, they’re going to get it from elsewhere. [It’s] probably most disarming, most productive, if we can be a source of that information. So we’ve absolutely invested in trying to expose our coaches and our players to as much information as we possibly can.”

While Breslow and his team are busy forging a new path for developing pitchers at lower levels of the organization, eyes at the big-league level will continue to be on Steele and Thompson.

“I’m really happy with where I’m at,” Steele said Thursday.

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