As Cubs shape roster, All-Star pitcher Justin Steele remains on track for Opening Day

MESA, Ariz. – The Chicago Cubs are not making contingency plans around Opening Day starter Justin Steele. The All-Star pitcher remains on track to face the defending World Series champs after an alarming moment that nearly derailed his season before it even began.

Steele went through a normal day-after routine on Saturday at the Sloan Park training complex, insisting that a left knee contusion won’t stop him from taking on the Texas Rangers in Game 1. The final days of spring training are all about shaping the edges of the roster and trying to avoid injuries. Steele had been hit by a comebacker during Friday’s Cactus League exhibition and collapsed.

“I went to put weight on my leg and it just wasn’t really working,” Steele said. “I kind of fell down and rolled into it. For probably 15 seconds, from the knee down, my leg was kind of stove-up. I was just trying to get some feeling back into it. Once we got back in the dugout and got in the tunnel, we started moving around and getting some blood flow to it. It started coming back. I would just say it’s sore right now, a little bruised up, but nothing to worry about.”

Justin Steele gets help after taking a comebacker off his knee on March 22. (Allan Henry / USA Today)

The Cubs are already planning for starting pitcher Jameson Taillon (back) to open the season on the injured list. To this point, there have been no indications that free agent Jordan Montgomery is a top priority. The rotation will be led by Steele, who went 16-5 with a 3.06 ERA last year and finished fifth in the National League Cy Young Award voting.

“Everybody’s excited for the season,” Steele said. “I’m just kind of eager to get it here and get it underway and play some ball with the boys.”

In the next 24 to 48 hours, there will be other situations to monitor as Cubs manager Craig Counsell and Jed Hoyer’s front office put the finishing touches on the roster:

• Carl Edwards Jr., a key reliever on the 2016 World Series team, opted out of his minor-league contract with the Cubs to explore other opportunities. It’s not totally out of the question that the Cubs could find a way to bring Edwards back into the organization, but this was a chance to add him to the 40-man roster and deepen their bullpen. Edwards’ status update on X, formerly Twitter, made it seem like he would be going elsewhere.

• Garrett Cooper will be added to the active roster, giving the Cubs a right-handed first baseman who can platoon with Michael Busch and a designated hitter for certain matchups. Cooper, who played parts of six seasons with the Miami Marlins and earned an All-Star selection in 2022, can also move to the outfield “in a pinch,” according to Counsell. Cooper’s path to Chicago opened wider once it became clear that Patrick Wisdom (back) would open the season on the injured list.

Cooper was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers and overlapped with Counsell while he managed the major-league club. Cooper also worked this offseason with a private hitting instructor, Mike Brumley, the former Cubs hitting coach who has a good relationship with Dansby Swanson.

“The team chemistry here is great,” Cooper said. “There’s a lot of guys who are selfless players. There’s a lot of veteran dudes here who can lead the way for some of the younger guys. There’s a great mix of both with Counsell leading it.”

• Ian Happ has “plateaued,” Counsell said, in his recovery from the strained hamstring that has lingered for most of March. Happ is scheduled to play again Monday, which would represent a four-day break between games. In terms of getting ramped up and feeling in a rhythm, Happ has gotten only 18 Cactus League at-bats this spring. Happ is a Gold Glove left fielder, a durable player who appeared in 158 games in each of the past two seasons and a possible leadoff hitter in Counsell’s lineup.

“We’re trying to just get him over this plateau with more exerted running off the field than in the games,” Counsell said. “The goal is obviously to put it behind him. And it’s not quite behind him (yet).”

Is Opening Day in jeopardy for Happ?

“No,” Counsell said, “not right now.”

• Nick Madrigal (hamstring) hasn’t been ruled out for Opening Day yet, but starting the season on the injured list appears to be the likely outcome. Madrigal is scheduled to play Sunday in a minor-league game, though he hasn’t been in Cactus League action since March 4 and his lengthy injury history will give team officials pause. The Cubs can go with Christopher Morel and Miles Mastrobuoni at third base in the meantime.

“We’re just going to have to make a decision on how we want Nick to go into the season,” Counsell said. “We’re trending in a really good place with Nick. He’s doing great. He’s passing every test. He’s ready to start playing in some games. We’re just going to have to decide if we want Nick to get consistent game action (first).”

• David Peralta is expected to work out of the team’s Arizona complex as the season starts, Counsell said, and continue his throwing progression. Peralta, who underwent a surgical procedure to repair a torn flexor tendon in his left elbow after last season, signed a minor-league deal in late February. Once Peralta is fully cleared, he could eventually provide valuable depth and a possible spark as a left-handed hitter with 117 home runs in the majors and a .784 career OPS.

“We got to get him to a point where he can play the outfield,” Counsell said. “And it’s not there yet with the rehab from the surgery.”

(Top photo of Justin Steele: Allan Henry / USA Today)

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