Justin Steele Takes AFL Assignment As Praise

Lefthander Justin Steele appears to be an obvious 40-man roster addition this offseason. The 23-year-old came back bigger and stronger from Tommy John surgery and has big league starter potential.       

The Cubs saw enough in Steele to sign him for $1 million as a 2014 fifth-round pick out of his Mississippi high school, thus buying him out of a commitment to Southern Mississippi.

The Cubs saw enough in Steele’s recovery and late-season performance in 2018 to give him a spot in the Arizona Fall League and the runway to build his innings and maybe develop into the legitimate homegrown pitcher that has so far eluded the Theo Epstein regime.

“I just want to prove that I’m healthy,” Steele said. “I’m 100 percent. I’m back and ready to take on any task in front of me. I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been in.”

One reference point might be the unique pitch the Cubs made to Georgia high school righthander Dylan Cease, whom they drafted in the sixth round in 2014 and signed for $1.5 million. Knowing Cease would begin his professional career in a Tommy John program, the Cubs sold him on the idea of having his entire rehab process supervised by a professional organization, with all the medical, strength training and nutritional resources available at their Mesa, Ariz., facility.

Cease emerged from that process as a key piece of the trade that brought back Jose Quintana from the White Sox in 2017. Steele had been a Carolina League midseason all-star before blowing out his elbow in August 2017 and going through a similar rehab grind in Mesa.   

“Once I started throwing (again),” Steele said, “I was like, ‘Man, I feel like this is effortless.’ ”

Steele made 11 starts this year between the Rookie-level Arizona League, high Class A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Tennessee, putting up a 2.31 ERA and a 0.90 WHIP and restarting the momentum the Cubs believe could get him to Wrigley Field.   

“The Fall League is a great opportunity,” Steele said. “This is where the best of the best in the minor leagues come to play after the season. It’s a fantastic opportunity. For them to ask me to come here right off the surgery, I took it as almost them complimenting me like: ‘We think you’re ready for this.’ I just took it head on.”


• The Cubs view 23-year-old first baseman/outfielder Jared Young as an under-the-radar prospect who could potentially develop into something bigger. Taken in the 15th round out of Old Dominion in 2017, Young claimed the organization’s minor league player of the year award this season by hitting .300/.357/.485 with 16 home runs in 120 games at a pair of Class A stops.

“He controlled the zone very well,” senior vice president of scouting and player development Jason McLeod said. “There’s more doubles power in there now. I think he’ll be able to loft the ball, get it in the air the next couple years. Wire to wire, he was probably our most consistent offensive performer this year, beyond just the slash line and in terms of the approach and quality at-bats.”

• Righthander Kohl Franklin has no doubts or regrets after bypassing Oklahoma and accepting an over-slot $540,000 bonus as a sixth-round pick out of high school this year. Franklin’s father Jay is a longtime agent. Franklin’s uncle Ryan pitched 12 seasons in the big leagues and now works as a special assistant for the Cardinals.

“Every single day you get to wake up and it’s like, ‘Wow this is my job,’ ” said Franklin from the Cubs’ strength camp in Arizona that ran until mid-November. “You live the dream. I couldn’t ask for anything more.” 

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