Cubs pitchers enter spring training with head start on previous years

Lefty Justin Steele spent much of the offseason in Arizona, training at the Cubs’ complex in Mesa, something that wasn’t available to him during the lockout last year.

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Justin Steele throws a football at the Cubs’ spring training facility in Mesa, Arizona.

Justin Steele throws a football at the Cubs’ spring training facility in Mesa, Arizona.

John Antonoff/Sun-Times

MESA, Ariz. — Players went into the offseason knowing how much time they had to get ready for spring training and build up to the regular season. That’s more than they could say the last three years.

So, when Cubs spring training opened with the first formal pitchers and catchers workout Wednesday, they had what felt like a head start.

“From a training perspective, we can get into live [batting practice sessions] a little earlier and spread out that volume,” Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said this week. “So it’s like, maybe hit a live BP, and then have a bullpen in between to work out some stuff, then another live BP, then you’re getting into games. Instead of like, ’pen, ’pen, live BP, live BP, game, which we’ve done for forever. But now we just know where guys are, so you can plan that a little bit better.”

The Cubs already have live batting practice sessions scheduled for Thursday, manager David Ross said.

That type of schedule wasn’t tenable last year, especially, when the lockout both shortened spring training and cut off communication between coaches and players. But this year, Jameson Taillon could go back and forth with his new coaches about the new slider he has been working on, Keegan Thompson could train at Wrigley Field all winter and Justin Steele could spend all but four or five weeks at the Cubs’ spring-training complex.

Steele even bought a house in Arizona.

“Me and my wife [Libby Murphy] met out here,” Steele said. “So she’s lived out here for the past 10 years; I spent a lot of time out here regardless. So it just made sense to go and get a house out here, and I could just spend more time here at the facility, get one-on-one work with the guys I need to get one-on-one work with.”

Steele has been honing his changeup, with the Cubs’ technology at his disposal. When Steele would see a changeup that he liked in a side session, one that felt good coming out of his hand, he’d check the laptop to dissect exactly what was working.

Steele is penciled into the rotation entering camp, along with Marcus Stroman, Taillon and Drew Smyly. Until Kyle Hendricks, who is in the long-toss portion of his throwing program, is back, the fifth spot in the rotation is up in the air.

“I do think we’re going to throw a lot of strikes,” president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said. “And we don’t have a strikeout pitching staff. But certainly we should limit our walks, and hopefully the balls in play we can convert to outs.”

A strengthened defense will help.

“That sinker gonna be sinking this year,” Stroman said when asked about Dansby Swanson and Nico Hoerner teaming up as the Cubs’ middle-infield duo. “Dansby and Nico, man, obviously I’m biased, but . . . range-, capability-wise, I don’t see a better one in the big leagues. So, that’s huge. For someone like myself, it just gives me more confidence. And I’m already someone who’s had a lot of confidence to begin with. So you throw those guys behind me, I’m going to be in a great place.”

Stroman is preparing for a World Baseball Classic run with Puerto Rico, which will have him pitching in meaningful games before the season. Steele estimated that he’s already thrown 15 bullpens this winter.

Said Steele: “I feel like I’m ready to get in the game as soon as possible.”

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