'I gotta do it again': After breakout year, Steele looking forward

March 2nd, 2024

MESA, Ariz. -- Expectations for are high. Really high.

Finishing fifth in National League Cy Young Award voting and being an All-Star will do that.

Steele, himself, is plenty chill, though. On Friday, he simply wanted to get through three innings of work in his Cactus League debut at Sloan Park as the Cubs beat the White Sox, 10-6.

“It’s really cool that last year happened and everything but it’s on to this year,” Steele said. “I gotta do it again, that’s how I’m looking at it.”

He got through his three frames as the Cubs topped their South Side counterparts before a crowd of 12,088. Steele threw 32 of his 46 pitches for strikes and allowed two earned runs on two hits. He walked one and fanned two, and even snared a line drive comebacker on his very first pitch.

“I really like that I went out there for the third and I got the pitch count up and the three up-downs,” Steele said. “I got my body to the point where it was starting to get a little bit tired towards the end.”

In 30 starts last season, Steele finished 16-5 with a 3.06 ERA and 176 strikeouts against 36 walks across 173 1/3 innings. The southpaw really hit his stride in a 15-start stretch from June 17 to Sept. 9, going 10-1 with a 2.37 ERA and 101 strikeouts to 17 walks in 91 innings.

“He throws a baseball in a way that just does a little something different each time, and that is hard for hitters,” Cubs manager Craig Counsell said. “Every year is a little different … and [he’ll need to] be able to adjust and adapt to that and be able to adjust to a league trying to make adjustments to him.”

Steele says he hasn’t made many mechanical adjustments since last year but has set a goal to throw at least 180 innings in 2024 -- if not 200. He spent his first spring outing mixing up his arsenal.

“I threw some good sinkers, some good changeups, mixed in the curveball a few times,” he said. “I was really happy with my secondary pitches.”

Non-roster invitee Owen Caissie (the Cubs' No. 4 prospect) boomed a three-run homer to deep left to give the Cubs the lead during a five-run fifth inning while catcher Yan Gomes picked up two hits and scored twice.

First things first

Michael Busch made another push to lock down the Cubs’ first base job by manning the corner and batting third on Friday, walking and scoring a run in three plate appearances.

Busch, MLB Pipeline's No. 51 overall prospect, made his way to Wrigleyville via an offseason trade with the Dodgers. He experienced his big league debut last season and played 27 Major League games after posting a 1.049 OPS with Triple-A Oklahoma City.

During his brief time in the Majors with Los Angeles, Busch played 99 innings at third base to 10 innings at first. He has mainly played third base as a professional, but he’s no stranger to first. Busch played there for the bulk of his college career at North Carolina and totaled 157 innings there in the Minors. The Cubs are positioning Busch to play first as his spring practice reps have been exclusively at the position.

“I’ve taken almost all my groundballs over there. I’m focused on getting as comfortable as I can,” he said. “Just understanding the game and the little things over at first, [like] how far you get off the base. The little things that can make an impact.”

Matt Mervis, Haydn McGeary, Jonathon Long and Moises Ballesteros have played first over the Cubs’ first seven Cactus League games, and Patrick Wisdom is also in the mix as an option against left-handed pitching. In three games this spring, Busch has totaled two hits, two walks and two runs scored.

“We feel like he’s earned that opportunity,” Counsell said. “It puts him in a good spot especially this time of year to focus on the things he needs to do.”

Tight spiral

Pitcher Jordan Wicks was getting in some tight throws this week at camp -- with a football.

“It’s more like a warmup thing,” he said. “I like making the first couple throws with that. It’s a fun way to get loose. I feel like it helps loosen up the shoulder and gets everything warm before you start throwing the baseball.”

The bespectacled lefty was throwing numerous tight spirals to teammates from as much as 40 yards.

Batters know about Wicks’ four-seam and two-seam fastballs since he made his Major League debut last year. He also played football in high school, but, no, he didn’t miss his calling.

“It’s actually funny; I was the kicker,” he laughed. “For me it was the best way to play football while still having the baseball focus and not getting hit as much.”

Across the Valley in Glendale, word has spread around the Cactus League that the Dodgers’ new $325 million pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto has been spotted getting his arm warm by throwing a javelin.

“Yeah I saw that. Don’t think I’ll be throwing a javelin,” Wicks laughed. “He can have that one.”