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As Chicago Cubs determine how long ace Justin Steele will be sidelined, replacing his production will serve as a challenge

ARLINGTON, Texas — Less than three hours before Chicago Cubs left-hander Justin Steele fell to the grass clutching his left hamstring on opening day at Globe Life Field, president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer was asked about the organization’s pitching depth.

After all, the depth, particularly among starting pitchers, appeared to be a team strength after getting through spring largely healthy.

“I think we have really good starters and good bullpen guys, but I thought some of the young guys took steps forward in the offseason, they looked good in spring training, so there’s no question we’ll need a lot of pitching,” Hoyer said. “And I think we’re in good shape that way organizationally, but one of the daunting aspects of starting this marathon is knowing this isn’t 20 years ago anymore, we’re not going to rely on five starters and a couple bullpen guys. It’s going to take everyone.”

Steele’s injury, however, is a big blow. Steele suffered a left hamstring strain as he fielded a bunt with two outs in the fifth inning of Thursday’s 4-3, 10-inning loss to the Texas Rangers. The Cubs won’t know the severity of the tear and how long he could be sidelined until they receive the results of Friday’s MRI. Steele is one of the most unreplaceable players on the roster. Coming off an All-Star season in which he was in contention for the National League Cy Young Award most the year, Steele was expected to build off that performance as the workhorse at the top of the rotation.

As much as injuries are part of the game, losing a pitcher of Steele’s caliber is a challenge to replace regardless of the organization’s depth. They survived a scare during his final spring start March 22 when Steele took a comebacker on the outside of his left knee against the first batter of the second inning.

Losing him on the first day of the season is its own brand of painful for the Cubs. Steele was rolling, too, before he felt his hamstring grab. He held the defending World Series champions to three hits and one run on a sacrifice fly with six strikeouts and one walk in 4 2/3 innings.

“It was typical Justin Steele,” manager Craig Counsell said. “They were super aggressive swinging, but he was still getting a ton of swing and miss, which is really impressive against that very good offensive team. That’s what you expect him to do, and he was delivering.”

For as well as Steele was pitching before the injury, his night likely would not have lasted much longer anyway. With the top of the Rangers order coming up and Steele at 67 pitches with two outs in the fifth, Counsell had Yency Almonte and Julian Merryweather up in the bullpen. Counsell said if the Rangers had gotten a hit to take the lead, “maybe we went to something different there.” Josh Jung, No. 3 in the order, had given Steele two tough at-bats, forcing him to throw a combined 17 pitches and leading Counsell to also consider going to the bullpen when his spot came up next.

Counsell had liked how the bullpen was lining up before Steele’s premature departure quickly forced an adjustment. He commended Mark Leiter Jr. for getting them five outs to get the back of the pen realigned for the late innings and liked the soft contact he saw from Hèctor Neris in the eighth. Unfortunately for the Cubs, Adbert Alzolay’s 2-2 slider caught enough of the inside of the plate for lefty pinch hitter Travis Jankowski to slug it for a tying home run in the ninth.

Photos: Opening day for Chicago Cubs at Globe Life Field

“I thought the bullpen did a really nice job, a bunch of guys filled the roles,” Counsell said.

The Cubs spent the Friday off day regrouping and laying out a plan on how to cover Steele’s spot in the rotation for however long he is out. With days off Thursday and April 11, they could get creative in calling up a reliever for short-term support before bringing up a starter from Triple-A Iowa — right-handers Hayden Wesneski and Ben Brown are on the 40-man roster.

Every season endures challenges. The Cubs are taking on a potentially big one after Day 1.

“The guys that do this for a long time and are considered the top rotation starters, it’s not a one-time thing,” Hoyer said. “I thought he looked really good this spring minus the fielding and I think he’s ready to go and have a good year.”