MINNEAPOLIS – There’s a lot of learning happening for the Cubs as the season begins to wind down and the final four weeks of the season are no exception. The development of young starters Adbert Alzolay, Justin Steele and Keegan Thompson has been closely watched as the team tries to decide what roles each will play in the future.
While Alzolay has been sidelined for the past few weeks with a mild left hamstring strain, Steele and Thompson have been getting their first taste of pitching in the rotation.
So far, the results have left a lot to be desired.
It’s early and the fate of Thompson and Steele won’t be determined solely off their four starts in September. But as the team enters the final month of the season before heading into the offseason, having a good idea of what the two starters can do as they build the 2022 roster will be valuable.
“There’s probably a lot of factors that are going into this kind of bump in the road,” manager David Ross said. “But they’re learning a lot of hard lessons at times. They understand when you don’t have your best stuff, how important location is and mixing your pitches up and trying to continue to compete when you don’t have your best stuff.”
Steele and Thompson have each scuffled in their first handful of starts with the Cubs. Steele had a 6.39 over his three starts in August, while Thompson had a 9.00 over his first two. Both pitchers have deep repertoires with a mix of breaking balls and offspeed pitches. But even with two five-pitch mixes, it’s been the fastball that has eluded them.
They combined to walk 10 batters over 18 2/3 innings last month.
“I wish my fastball command would have been a little bit better,” Steele said after his last outing. “I made some mistakes over the plate. Just wasn’t commanding it to both sides of the plate. That’s something I need to work on moving forward.”
Both of the Cubs’ 26-year-old arms were successful starters in the minors and they can get major-league hitters out while contributing to the bullpen’s early-season success. Now pitching every five days in the big leagues and seeing a lineup multiple times in a game over several innings, they’re both learning how to take that next step.
“I think I’m getting a little quick to the plate and kind of pulling off and my arm’s dragging behind a little bit,” Thompson said Friday. “So the balls are getting yanked [off the plate] or they’re in the middle of the plate just hanging there to get hit.”
“[They’re learning] how hard it is to be consistent at this level,” Ross said. “You get to take the bump right off the bat and you’re trying to go for five, six or seven innings and being able to navigate that and putting in a lot of work.”
The Cubs are going to give Steele and Thompson every opportunity to work through their problems and some growing pains were to be expected for two pitchers starting in the big leagues for the first time.
However, wanting to see some growth in the final month of the season isn’t unreasonable. Continuing to show flashes of what they can do will help them toward reaching that potential.
“I think that’s another sign of some of the starters that are able to stay around for a long time,” Ross said. “I’ve been around guys that when you have your best stuff, you’re able to compete by locating and changing eye levels and changing speeds and stuff like that.
“I think they’re learning a lot of those valuable lessons and how to handle those moments of adversity on the fly and learn some tough lessons, but good lessons.”