Cubs Left Scrambling After Ace’s Early Exit From Opening Day

Justin Steele

Getty Justin Steele

The Chicago Cubs spent the offseason bolstering their roster to ensure they’re a shoo-in to win the NL Central this season, but the team didn’t even make it through Opening Day without a crisis.

In the fifth inning on March 28, starting pitcher Justin Steele fell to the ground clutching his left leg after running off the mound to field a bunt, causing him to leave his start early. After the game — which Chicago lost to the Texas Rangers in extra innings — Cubs manager Craig Counsell told reporters, including the Marquee Sports Network, that Steele suffered a hamstring strain, will get an MRI, and is likely headed to the injured list.

“It’s just a shame,” Counsell told reporters. “He’s pitching really, really well. Obviously, an important member of the team, and looks like we’re gonna miss him for a little bit here… First day of the season, it probably stings a little worse, but this is gonna be part of our season and it’s testing us immediately.”

In 2023, Steele went 16-5 with a 3.06 ERA, marking the best stats of his career and securing him his first All-Star selection. He finished fifth in the NL Cy Young voting.

Justin Steele’s Injury

It may only be the second day of the 2024 season, but it isn’t Steele’s first injury of the year.

On March 22, Steele exited a spring-training start during the second inning after being struck in the left leg by a bouncing comebacker. While the knee contusion caused him to leave the game early, it fortunately didn’t impact his pitching schedule for Opening Day, with Steele telling’s Jordan Bastian after the start that it was “a little bruised up, but nothing to worry about, really.”

Less than a week after his spring training injury, Steele left his Opening Day start with a hamstring strain. The Cubs are yet to confirm the severity of the injury or how long Steele is expected to be on the IL, but immediately after the game, the ace told reporters his “spirits are high,” per WGN TV News’ Josh Frydman.

Cubs’ Starting Rotation Hinges On Steele’s Return

At the end of 2023, the Cubs lost ace Marcus Stroman to free agency, and while newly-acquired Japanese pitcher Shōta Imanaga was a very strong addition to replace him, the team’s rotation is still a rather weak spot in the roster. Steele is the team’s only real ace and despite multiple attempts in the offseason, the Cubs don’t have a strong No. 2 to put behind him.

Imanaga will need time to transition to a five-day pitching cycle, which Counsell cited as a reason for why he’ll use a rotation of six starters this season, per The Athletic’s Patrick Mooney. Right-hander Jameson Taillon failed to pitch in spring training due to a back strain and is on the 15-day IL to start the season, and while Kyle Hendricks is pitching well after shoulder surgery in 2022, he isn’t exactly the top-of-the-rotation arm he was a few seasons ago.

That only leaves Jordan Wicks and Javier Assad, both of whom had to fight for spots in the rotation during spring training and are looking to prove themselves as reliable starters this season.

The Cubs attempted to bolster their rotation during the winter with very limited success. After missing out on both free agent superstar Shohei Ohtani and Japanese pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto to the Los Angeles Dodgers, the team was linked to ace Blake Snell, who eventually signed with the San Francisco Giants, and Jordan Montgomery, who recently joined the Arizona Diamondbacks. None of the links ended in a deal, making Imanaga the only starting pitcher the Cubs managed to acquire during the offseason.

On March 28, CBS Sports’ Dayn Perry predicted the Cubs could land two-time All-Star Shane Bieber in a trade with the Cleveland Guardians, but considering the Guardians are unlikely to even make Bieber available before the trade deadline, Chicago’s rotation is currently stuck. Even before Steele’s injury, the Cubs’ rotation was thin, meaning the team’s success on the mound this season largely relies on the 28-year-old’s recovery.

Admittedly, Taillon could return from the IL and have the comeback season the Cubs have been hoping for him, and Imanaga could find his feet quickly in a five-man rotation. The extent of Steele’s injury is still unknown, and perhaps Chicago’s rotation will come together with their IL woes resolved in the first weeks of the season.

Still, it’s easy to argue that the Cubs should’ve been a lot more aggressive in the offseason to ensure they had rotation depth during what they’re pushing as a contention year. Only time will tell if their offseason decisions come back to haunt them.

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