Minor League Monday: Justin Steele
Justin Steele is an MLB ready prospect in the Chicago Cubs organization, at least according to certain depth charts. After being drafted in 2014 as an 18 year old, he has worked his way up to the AA Tennessee Smokies, where he last pitched in 2019. Despite struggling with a 5.59 ERA in 11 starts there, he is owner of a 3.62 minor league ERA, and has big league upside as an unranked prospect.
He's almost exclusively started in the minor leagues, starting 75/80 appearances. with 320 career minor league innings, that averages to 4 innings per start. As he throws only three pitches, his likely impact at the big league level would be out of the bullpen. He has had injury issues, with Tommy John surgery in 2017 that split up both the '17 and '18 seasons. In 2019, his season was cut off in June due to an oblique injury.
As he has no big league experience, there's a lack of advanced stats or metrics on him, however, MLB Savant does have a solid scouting report on him:
Scouting grades: Fastball: 55 | Curveball: 55 | Changeup: 50 | Control: 50 | Overall: 45
The Cubs gave seven-figure bonuses to three prep pitchers in 2014, but only Steele ($1 million, fifth round) remains in the organization after they included Dylan Cease ($1.5 million, sixth) in the Jose Quintana trade in 2017 and released Carson Sands ($1.1 million, fourth) in 2018. Steele ranked second in the Class A Advanced Carolina League with a 2.92 ERA when he blew out his elbow in August 2017. He returned from Tommy John surgery quicker than expected last July and looked more polished than ever.
Steele regained his previous fastball velocity, sitting in the low 90s and reaching 97 mph with some sink, though he didn't generate as many ground balls as he had previously and tired by the time he got to the Arizona Fall League. His upper-70s curveball has good depth and can be a plus offering at its best. His changeup still needs work but he's committed to using the pitch.
Steele averaged 3.7 walks per nine innings in his first four pro seasons but just 2.5 in his first year back after having his elbow reconstructed. He has simplified his delivery, allowing him to repeat it more easily and improve the frequency and quality of his strikes, though his control has regressed a bit in 2019. If he can prove he can handle a full-season workload, he could help the Cubs as a mid-rotation starter.
That's pretty high praise for someone who's only got three pitches and averaged less than 5 innings per start in the minors. The control issues are very legitimate. His annual walks per 9 totals read like this: 3.3, 4.5, 3.3, 2.5, 4.7. A bit back and forth. That said, he does have good enough raw stuff to succeed. Here's the pitch scouting report.
What does the future hold for Steele? It's a murky question. After missing half seasons 2017-2019, he did not play in 2020 due to the cancelled minor league season. He was a part of the Cubs taxi squad, but did not appear for the MLB team in 2020. As someone who needs to refine their control, the lack of experiences figures to slow down his development.
In a perfect world, I think he spends 2021 between AA and AAA, and maybe comes up to the big leagues in September. He's got to stay healthy and develop better command. Those might be two big questions, but the upside is there for Justin Steele.