Maybe the Cubs will spend some of that huge pile of cash they recouped with their trade-deadline selloff to sign a frontline starting pitcher or maybe even an All-Star shortstop this winter — to jump-start this rebuild they won’t call a rebuild.
Either way, the key might be what else they have in-house, besides Kyle Hendricks, to fill out a pitching staff that can eventually win playoff games.
And that’s why what Justin Steele did Tuesday — and then what he does the next eight weeks — is so important.
“I don’t know if it’s so important,” Cubs manager David Ross said.
Make that exceptionally, freaking important.
The Cubs went nine years under Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer without developing a pitcher who stuck for a full season or threw so much as one pitch in the postseason for them. And if that doesn’t change now that they’ve jettisoned their championship hitting core, this rebuild could start looking worse than the last one by this time next year.
So when Steele — who looked as poised as he did powerful in the bullpen early this season — made his much anticipated starting debut Tuesday, it was the first look at one of several important auditions down the stretch for a role in the next core.
Adbert Alzolay has a 26-start head start on Steele, and Keegan Thompson is awaiting his chance to join the Cubs’ rotation in the next few weeks while getting stretched out in the minors now.
But Steele has the stuff from the left side to inspire images of a middle-of-the-rotation starter for a good team — and is making the kind of first impression that might even put him at the front of that trio of rookies.
“I would definitely say that this is a positive that the organization has a big-time arm from the left side that has a potential to be something special,” Ross said. “That’s something really exciting for us.
“If they are on track to develop the way they continue to move, that’s an exciting time for us, and it shows us all maybe where we can spend the money that we have, according to you [media guy].”
Oh, the money is there. Lots and lots of it.
As much as any team will have available over the next free agent market or two.
That doesn’t mean that a Ricketts family ownership that has done little but cut costs from its big-market, massive-revenue operation while bemoaning pandemic losses over the last year will spend it.
But that makes the likes of a guy like Steele even more important to whatever success comes next for a Cubs team sliding toward its first losing season since 2014 after all that roster purging.
“When you look at the good organizations, there’s usually a good mix of veterans and guys on contracts, with some good young guys really contributing,” Ross said, “and then you start to implement that farm system into the mix and you can sustain winning for a long time.”
And for most of Tuesday’s five-inning starting debut on a miserably muggy day at Wrigley Steele showed what that might look like, including retiring the first 10 he faced and allowing only an infield hit through three.
“I’d say I was calm and composed,” he said. “I felt really good out there.”
And then came an eight-pitch stretch to start the fourth when Steele gave up a home run, double and home run to the 2-3-4 hitters in the Brewers lineup — bringing pitching coach Tommy Hottovy to the mound.
Steele retired the next four and six of the final eight he faced.
“That’s one of those keys to continue to pitch [deep] into the ballgame,” Ross said. “Things happen quick, especially here sometimes, and he settled in nicely and definitely locked it back in.”
Steele, a fifth-round draft pick in 2014, impressed Ross and the front office during an 11-game debut in the bullpen in April and May that helped the Cubs surge into contention in May — before a hamstring injury put him on the injured list.
By the time he was was healthy enough to start a minor-league rehab program, the Cubs were in the midst of an 11-game losing streak that altered the season and the shape of the franchise’s future.
Steele knows exactly what’s at stake for the team and its timeline with his performance in what’s now a six-man Cubs rotation the rest of the way — not to mention what it might mean for his career.
“Each time I go out there I’m trying to prove something,” he said. “I’m trying to show that I can be a part of this up-and-coming World Series run. That’s why we’re here. We’re here to win championships.
“I’m going to do what whatever I can to be part of that. And each time I take the mound I’m going to show it.”