Justin Steele was cruising through the first seven batters he faced and ended up doing the same through the next two, but the iceberg he struck in between there could have disastrous ramifications. It might also be absolutely nothing, which is why David Ross told media members he was “not sounding any alarms” while informing them that Steele would undergo an MRI on his left forearm and elbow. The Cubs will have those results shortly thereafter, but we may not know more publicly since the team is traveling to the West Coast.
Tom Petty said the waiting is the hardest part, which is true in many cases, but it’ll be much harder if the news confirms the natural fears that are stoked when you hear a pitcher is suffering from a forearm strain. That somewhat amorphous term may certainly be perfectly accurate, but the alarms Ross is trying to avoid sounding come from the possibility that “forearm strain” is merely a euphemism for torn UCL.
Anecdotal evidence offers a strong foundation for optimism, as Steele stayed in the game and remained in his standard velocity range with the fastball. After sitting 92-93 mph through those first seven batters, his last three four-seams clocked in at 91.1, 93.2, and 90.6 mph. That’s well within his normal range, particularly when you consider the way he manipulates that pitch to be much more than just a typical heater.
Though not all elbow injuries are created equal, a torn UCL can result in pain, numbness, and/or weakened grip and would very likely have precluded Steele from continuing to throw at his normal velo. He obviously felt something in that left arm, hence the little shake that spurred a mound visit from Ross and trainer Nick Frangella, but I have to think it was nothing like a pop or serious discomfort. Steele’s been through a blown elbow before and surely wouldn’t have pushed through something he believed could have been a repeat.
Again, we won’t be able to do anything other than speculate and hope until the Cubs release more information, and even then it might be a while before we know for certain what’s happening. What is initially presented as a precautionary IL stint could simply be a way to maintain a full roster while Steele seeks multiple opinions on the issue. Or maybe he really did just tweak a muscle in his forearm and needs a little time to convalesce.
I keep going back to Miguel Amaya, who was placed on the IL in 2021 with what was being called an elbow strain at the time. He eventually underwent elbow reconstruction and missed most of two seasons, only returning as quickly as he did because he could DH. Different positions and situations, obviously, but that’s a very common story across baseball. Perhaps Steele’s early departure is merely a red herring and he’ll only miss a start or two.
Losing him for much longer, even if we’re looking at something relatively minor, would be a real gut punch to a team that just got up off the canvas at the end of a pummeling in May. The Cubs took two of three from the best team in baseball and had a real shot to sweep the series, so they’re still just five games back in the division despite being tied for last place. They’re only 4.5 back in the Wild Card race, believe it or not.
Having a one-two punch of Steele and Marcus Stroman atop the order more or less guarantees they can avoid the long losing streaks that have plagued them the last two seasons, but June’s schedule looks to be unforgiving. A group that already had too little margin for error to afford big mistakes or personnel hits may not be able to withstand losing a top-of-the-rotation pitcher. On the other hand, a clean bill of health for Steele means the possibility exists for the Cubs to hit a hot stretch and put themselves back in the race.
While the front office could still hold their third annual garage sale in July and a lot of folks would applaud them for it because MLB has conditioned everyone to be cool with rebuilds, the Chicago Freaking Cubs should not be stuck in this spot for as long as they have been. Sorry, I’ve conducted that rant more than once here. The point is that Steele’s availability moving forward could very well be the determining factor in whether the Cubs are sellers (cellars?) in the next two months.
No pressure, Hayden Wesneski. Beyond the other implications, I just hope Steele is okay because he’s an excellent pitcher and a better dude who I really want to see out there shoving.