PT TOMORROW: NL Central—Steele on the rise for CHC

Chicago Cubs

Justin Steele (LHP, CHC) was a part of the Cubs’ 2014 draft class that also included Kyle Schwarber (OF, WSH) and Dylan Cease (LHP, CHW). While both have since moved on to different clubs, Steele remains in the Cubs organization. He lost some shine as a prospect over the last few seasons, first struggling at Double-A Tennessee across 11 starts by posting a 5.59 ERA and a 1.70 WHIP. That led to him making his first contributions in the major leagues as a reliever earlier in 2021. Things only worsened, when he suffered a hamstring injury that sidelined him from May 21 to July 8.

However, there’s reason to believe his stock could be back on the rise prior to season’s end. Upon activation from the injured list, Steele was optioned to Triple-A Iowa but has been working to stretch back out as a starter. Though he has failed to throw more than 3.2 innings in either of his two starts in Iowa, he’s thrown a combined 6.2 scoreless innings while racking up 10 strikeouts as opposed to four walks. Though that’s hardly a definitive sample, it appears that the team intends to give him the chance to prove himself as it heads towards a rebuild.

While much of the trade speculation surrounding the Cubs focuses on the team’s hitters, there is also plenty of potential for rotation members to be moved.  Zach Davies (RHP, CHC) has been inconsistent this season (5% PQS-DOM outings, 58% PQS-DIS), but he nevertheless has proven capable of providing plenty of innings to contenders who may be looking for rotation reinforcements. The fact that he’s a free agent makes the case only stronger for the team to trade him. Others who may be at risk of losing their role are Jake Arrieta (RHP, CHC) and Trevor Williams (RHP, CHC), who have both struggled on the mound. As soon as Steele is ready, a rotation spot should be available to him.    


Pittsburgh Pirates

The Pirates successes at the major-league level have been few and far between this season. On the other hand, their player development in the minors, particularly with young pitchers, is a bright spot with shining examples being Roansy Contreras (RHP, PIT) and Max Kranick (RHP, PIT). However, perhaps the defining developmental project for the second half of the season will be the progression (or lack thereof) that Mitch Keller (RHP, PIT) shows.

Media members such as Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette have speculated that Keller will return as soon as this week, potentially starting Wednesday against the Diamondbacks. Keller was demoted in the middle of June with the goal of regaining his consistency while working at Triple-A Indianapolis. That journey began out of the bullpen, as Keller threw 1.0 and 1.2 innings in his first two outings at the level. In five outings since, he’s returned to a starter’s role while also stretching out to throw between three and five innings on each occasion. As should be expected, his results have been strong, as he’s recorded a 1.80 ERA and 1.15 WHIP while racking up a 24:7 K:BB across 20 innings.

However, success at Triple-A s nothing new for Keller. Across 176 innings at the level during his career, Keller has managed a 3.73 ERA with 204 strikeouts and 64 walks. However, he has yet to translate that success to Pittsburgh, as he’s suffered a 6.31 ERA with 132 strikeouts and 63 walks in only 117 innings. Still only 25, Keller has plenty of his time left in his career to deliver on his prospect pedigree, but the second half of the 2021 season could be a key turning point to his future success.    


Milwaukee Brewers

Coming off a poor 2020 season, Omar Narváez’s (C, MIL) status as a viable starting catcher in the league was in question heading into 2021. However, he’s answered any doubt through the halfway point of the campaign, posting a strong contact rate (79 ct%), showcasing plate discipline (0.65 eye), and even some power potential (125 xPX). Highlighted by a BPV of 40, Narváez has put together a strong well-rounded performance. He’s served a key role on the team, not only taking on the majority of the work managing the pitching staff but also hitting primarily fourth and fifth in the lineup.

His return to form has come at a key time for the team. Long-time contributor Manny Piña (C, MIL) is in his age-34 season and has shown signs of slowing down in the midst of an eight-year career. Through 110 plate appearances this season, Piña has only a .566 OPS – the lowest mark of his career by nearly 150 points.

Though Piña remains a well-respected veteran around the clubhouse and is still lauded for his defensive work, Will Sammon of The Athletic suggested the team could look to add a more productive backup catcher to the mix prior to the passage of the trade deadline. The fantasy impact may not be substantial, though any improvement over Pina would only lengthen Milwaukee’s lineup further.


St. Louis Cardinals

The Cardinals may be in search of upgrades at shortstop, whether internally or externally, in the second half of the season. Otherwise, the members of their lineup appear relatively well settled. That means any improvement upon the team’s 3.95 runs per game, third-worst in the major leagues, will come primarily from squeezing more out of individual players. One potential area to do so is to settle on an effective leadoff hitter.

Tommy Edman (2B/OF, STL) occupied that position for nearly the entirety of the first two-and-a-half months of the season. Since June 23, Dylan Carlson (OF, STL) has taken over the role. While Carlson has managed a .338 on-base average (0.40 eye) to this point in the season, he hasn’t necessarily otherwise progressed as expected (85 xPX, 75 HctX, 10 BPV). Meanwhile, Edman has only a .298 on-base average despite a strong ability to make contact and decent plate discipline (87 ct%, 0.41 eye). However, his production has been tempered greatly by a lack of hard contact (69 xPX, 95 HctX, 3.4 percent barrel rate).

The end result has been a combined 92 wRC+ and .309 on-base average from the leadoff position for the Cardinals. Both of those marks are in the bottom six of the league, so it’s clear that the team could squeeze more of that spot in the order. The player to watch is Harrison Bader (OF, STL). In previous seasons, Bader has flashed tantalizing power and speed upside but has lacked the ability to make consistent contact and get on base at the rate of an ideal leadoff candidate. While injuries have limited him to only 127 plate appearances in 2021, Bader has nearly cut his strikeout rate in half from a career mark of 27.7 percent to 15.7 percent (corresponding ct% increase from 68 to 82). The team has yet to show much faith in Bader’s improved skills, as he has yet to hit higher than fifth in the order this season. However, without significant offensive improvements the team will likely remain on the outside looking in for a playoff spot, a possibility which could cue the team to truly test Bader’s skillset.


Cincinnati Reds

Nick Lodolo (LHP, CIN) and Hunter Greene (RHP, CIN) have rightfully stolen the headlines among the Reds’ top prospects on the mound this season. Lodolo has dominated across 36 innings at Double-A (38.7 K%, 5.1 BB%, 1.00 ERA) and was rewarded with a trip to the Futures Game earlier this month. A promotion to Triple-A should be on tap for him at some point during the remainder of the season.

Greene has already made the leap from Double-A to Triple-A after posting an equally dominant line to begin the season at the lower level (37 K%, 8.6 BB%, 1.98 ERA). Though he’s taken some lumps after his promotion (28.6 K%, 11.8 BB%, 4.28 ERA), much of his struggles were concentrated in his initial outing when he surrendered four solo home runs.

Though less of a household name, Graham Ashcraft (RHP, CIN) has utilized a scorching start to the 2021 campaign to enter the conversation as a third member of elite prospects within the organization. Ashcraft began the season at High-A, but made quick work of the assignment by posting a 34.2 K% and 2.28 ERA across 38.2 innings. He’s largely maintained that success at Double-A (27.8 K%, 12.7 BB%, 3.00 ERA), though he has struggled with his command by surrendering at least three free passes in each of his last three outings at the level. That illustrates the work that Ashcraft still must do prior to establishing himself as an elite prospect and reaching the major leagues, but he has made the case to be a rising contributor within the organization.  

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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.