As Cubs’ Justin Steele takes a hit, the pitching staff comes into clearer view

MESA, Ariz. — The Chicago Cubs have made it almost all the way through spring training without any season-damaging injuries, international gambling scandals or off-the-field controversies. From the franchise that brought you “Cubbie Occurrences,” this camp has been serious, structured and kind of boring.

That steady sense of calm was interrupted by the sight of All-Star pitcher Justin Steele lying on the grass, leaning his head against the mound and reaching for his left knee during Friday’s Cactus League exhibition against the San Francisco Giants at Sloan Park. Luis Matos led off the second inning by hitting a ball back to the mound that ricocheted off Steele’s leg and buckled him to the ground.

Six days before the first Opening Day assignment of his career, Steele got up with help from Cubs bench coach Ryan Flaherty and an athletic trainer and walked off the field. Steele was initially diagnosed with a left knee contusion, according to a team official. Steele maintained his sense of humor about the situation, going on X, formerly Twitter, to announce: “I’m okay.. my bracket is not.”

To survive the 162-game season and advance into October, the Cubs will need another Cy Young Award-caliber season from Steele, a homegrown lefty with an explosive fastball and a wicked slider. Steele, who was not immediately available to reporters for comment, has been lined up to face the defending World Series champs on the road in Game 1. The Texas Rangers mark the beginning of a difficult early schedule that includes a visit from the Los Angeles Dodgers and a three-city West Coast trip in the middle of April.

That’s when Cubs manager Craig Counsell expects Jameson Taillon to rejoin the rotation “at the earliest.” Taillon, who hasn’t pitched in a Cactus League game this spring while dealing with a back injury, is scheduled to throw live batting practice before the season starts and build up toward a minor-league rehab assignment. The Cubs need Taillon to be the pitcher who settled in after last season’s All-Star break (3.70 ERA), not the one who struggled to adjust in the first half (6.15 ERA) or live up to his $68 million contract.

The Cubs believe they have the pitching depth to withstand injuries and keep players fresh throughout the marathon. Counsell has already expressed his preference to utilize a sixth starter and maintain flexibility. If Steele’s left knee is indeed a nonissue, then the roster decisions are narrowed down to the end of the bench and the edges of the bullpen.

“At this time of year, everybody has the names in their head,” Counsell said. “Now we’re just kind of biding time a little bit because of things that can happen. So you don’t make decisions for that reason. Because something can happen today, tomorrow, the next day. And you don’t make decisions until you have to in this game.”

“I walked in and the first thing I could say was, ‘Man, this is where it all started for me,’” Carl Edwards Jr. said at the beginning of camp. “To be back here in Cubbie blue, it just feels amazing.”

No matter what, Edwards will always have a place in franchise history for pitching in the 10th inning of Game 7 of the 2016 World Series. Originally acquired in the Matt Garza trade, Edwards entered Joe Maddon’s circle of trust and put together three solid seasons for teams that won 290 games. By the 2019 trade deadline, the Cubs felt Edwards needed a change of scenery and shipped him to the San Diego Padres for left-handed reliever Brad Wieck. Edwards bounced around and dealt with injuries before getting his career back on track.

When healthy — the disclaimer that forced him to accept a minor-league deal this winter — Edwards functioned as a very effective reliever for the Washington Nationals over the last two years (3.07 ERA in 89 appearances). That is the type of player the Cubs will probably be searching for at this year’s trade deadline.

“I kind of look at it like I would go into any other spring training,” Edwards said in mid-February. “As long as I take care of my business and do what I got to do and prove my durability, then I think I have a good chance to make the team.”

It sounds like Counsell agrees with that assessment: “CJ maybe just had to prove he was healthy. I think he’s done that quickly. He’s healthy. No issues with his health.”

Edwards can opt out of his contract Sunday, and the Cubs are planning to open a spot on the 40-man roster when Caleb Kilian (shoulder) goes on the 60-day injured list. The Cubs may also need to create space on the 40-man roster for Garrett Cooper, a right-handed-hitting first baseman, especially since infielder Patrick Wisdom (back) will open the season on the injured list and infielder Nick Madrigal (hamstring) likely won’t be ready for Opening Day.

“We just got to figure out the roster situation,” Counsell said. “The players that stay in the league keep making adjustments. CJ’s a good example of that. Most pitchers that last generally have to figure out a way to take care of themselves really well and keep their arm going. And then they have to figure out a way to adjust. Usually, it is with something a little bit different as they get older. I think CJ’s done that.”

Drew Smyly wants to be great in the bullpen

“I don’t view this as a sacrifice,” Cubs pitcher Drew Smyly said after the “pretty short conversation” he had with Counsell about moving to the bullpen now that Jordan Wicks and Javier Assad have earned spots in the rotation.

“We have a good team,” Smyly said. “I’m more than happy to (do this). That’s what I’ve been saying this whole spring: I don’t really care what role I’m pitching in. I want to be able to help the team win. If that’s me pitching out of the bullpen right now, I’m with it.”

So many unpredictable things happen that roles within a pitching staff evolve. The Cubs recognize that Smyly, 34, is a highly experienced pitcher who probably shouldn’t be carrying close to 150 innings or 20-plus starts anymore. Smyly excelled in the rotation during the first two months of last season (3.15 ERA in 11 starts) and then watched his ERA creep above 5.00 by August. Smyly regained his effectiveness as a reliever in September and then took a $10.5 million salary for this season rather than opting out of his contract.

One template for Smyly could be Drew Pomeranz, a left-handed pitcher the Milwaukee Brewers acquired for Counsell at the 2019 trade deadline. Pomeranz was struggling as a starter at that point in his career, but he dominated for the Brewers in a limited role, piling up 45 strikeouts in 25 appearances and parlaying that success into a four-year, $34 million contract with the Padres.

“Pitching out of the bullpen is just a different mindset,” Smyly said. “You feel different coming in later in the game. You attack guys differently. Maybe right now, my game plays better as a reliever. I don’t think it’s something where I’m sad I’m not starting. I started 10 years in this league, and I don’t think I’m closing the door on that. But this is an opportunity. Working with Counsell, I can provide a lot of value.”

Counsell’s predecessor, David Ross, found a bullpen formula that worked for most of last season, trusting a small, unheralded group of relievers to keep the team in playoff contention until late September. Again, this is a front office that took a measured approach at the trade deadline and tries to avoid big, multiyear commitments in the bullpen. While there have been significant improvements in the organization’s pitching development, that full potential hasn’t been realized yet. Bullpen plans are collaborative with input from coaches and the front office. Still, it’s been subtle but noticeable how players look back on last year’s collapse.

“We’re really deep this year,” Smyly said. “Last year, I feel like we kind of relied on three, four people most of the season, and there was a lot of wear down near the end. This year, there’s a lot of guys that can fill a lot of different roles. We’re really deep in that aspect. It’s something our team can really build on.”

(Photo of Justin Steele being helped to his feet Friday: Allan Henry / USA Today)

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