4:25pm: Steele will undergo an MRI, Ross tells Paul Sullivan of the Chicago Tribune.
4:05pm: Cubs left-hander Justin Steele was removed from today’s start after throwing three perfect innings. The trainer had visited him in that third inning and Steele finished the frame but didn’t return in the fourth. The club later announced to reporters, including Jesse Rogers of ESPN, that the southpaw was removed due to forearm tightness.
It’s too early for the club to have any kind of firm diagnosis on the issue, but Steele will undoubtedly undergo further testing to get a clearer picture of the situation. Forearm tightness is an ominous combination of words for a pitcher as it often precedes a serious ailment, though that’s not always the case. Nonetheless, it will be a situation to monitor given that Steele has only grown in importance recently.
Now 27, Steele broke out last year by posting a 3.18 ERA in 119 innings over 24 starts. He struck out 24.6% of batters faced, walked 9.8% and got grounders at a 51.2% rate. He’s only further cemented himself in the Chicago rotation this year, as his outing today dropped his ERA to 2.65. His strikeout and ground ball rates have declined slightly, but he’s also allowing far fewer walks and home runs.
With the recent return of Kyle Hendricks, the Cubs have a set rotation that also consists of Marcus Stroman, Jameson Taillon, Drew Smyly and Steele. The strength of that group pushed Hayden Wesneski out of the picture, as he was optioned to the minors earlier this month. He was recalled yesterday with the plan of him helping out of the bullpen, per Meghan Montemurro of the Chicago Tribune. That has come into play quickly, as he jumped into today’s game when Steele departed, throwing 59 pitches over 3 2/3 innings.
Prior to getting optioned, Wesneski had been working as a starter and could perhaps do so again if Steele needs to miss any time. That would likely be a downgrade for the club, as the righty had a 5.03 ERA in his eight starts this year. He’s still young, 25 years old, and could certainly take a step forward. But Steele has been one of the 10 best pitchers in baseball in many categories this year, including ERA, FIP and fWAR. It would be unfair to expect just about any pitcher to step in and replicate that kind of production.
There could also potentially be effects elsewhere in the club’s system, as Patrick Mooney of The Athletic reported earlier today that the club was open to various paths to supplementing its bullpen. Codi Heuer is working his way back from last year’s Tommy John surgery, but the club has also seemingly given some thought to promoting youngsters like Ben Brown or Daniel Palencia. “Everyone is on the radar at this point,” manager David Ross said. “We’re hoping Codi comes back soon. That could be, hopefully, another big-league arm that is able to help us out. Ben Brown has been throwing the ball really well in the starter role. Palencia has been sent to the ‘pen, to work out of the ‘pen and try to learn that role — what that consists of, how to go back-to-back, the recovery with all that. There’s a plan in place, for sure, and big-picture stuff. But this is what we’ve got right now. We have conversations daily about those things.”
Brown, 23, came over from the Phillies in the David Robertson trade. He has a 2.25 ERA through nine starts this year, split between Double-A and Triple-A. Palencia, meanwhile, came over from the Athletics in the 2021 Andrew Chafin deal. He had a 5.87 ERA through five Double-A starts this year before getting bumped to the Triple-A bullpen for his two most recent appearances. Neither player has made their major league debut yet but Brown does have a 40-man roster spot.
The club is scrambling a bit to try to cover for a poor performance from its bullpen so far this year. Their relievers have a collective ERA of 4.55 on the season, a mark that places them 27th out of the 30 clubs in the league. All of these conversations were happening before Steele’s departure today. If that proves to be an injury of any significance, it would only stretch their staff further, though they will surely be hoping it proves to be something minor that passes quickly.