The Situation: The Reds are not good, and with five pitchers on the disabled list to start the season and no other starting options on the 40-man roster, they’ll give Stephenson a brief, early look making his big-league debut on Thursday. He’ll be sent down after the game no matter what, as they look to secure an extra year of control.
Background: Cincinnati has long shown an affinity for hard-throwing right-handers, so it wasn’t a big surprise when they took him with their first-round pick out of Alhambra High School in Martinez, California in the summer of 2011. In his three-plus seasons in the Reds system, he’s shown flashes of dominance—as seen in his 9.8 strikeouts per nine innings rate—but his inability to throw quality (or any) strikesÂ has impeded his development. Still, there’s been more positive than negative as a professional, and he showed enough quality this spring to make the Reds believer he’s ready to pitch in the bigs in 2016.
Scouting report: Stephenson has actually lost a tick or two off his fastball, but it’s still a double-plus pitch, sitting 92-95 mph with good life and occasionally getting into the upper 90s. Giving a concrete grade to his curveball is difficult; at times it looks like another 70 offering with excellent depth and hard spin; at times it’s a spike offering that has zero chance of ending up in the strike zone, without enough rotation to fool hitters. We’ll split the difference and call it a 55 offering, but you’re going to see iterations of it that make you wonder how it could be that high/low.
If Stephenson’s fastball/curveball combination backed up slightly in 2015, he more than made up for it with the development of his changeup. He somewhat “famously” went back to using a split-change grip, and that gives the offering much more life than his previous flimsy straight change. It doesn’t offer the same wow factor that the curveball does, but it’s a much more consistent part of his arsenal, and it’s the reason why he should remain a starter.
Note that we say should and not will remain a starter, however, and that’s because Stephenson’s control and command leave a lot to be desired. The delivery doesn’t have a ton of effort to it and there are no discernable red flags in the action, but he doesn’t always finish, and that leads to him missing up and/or out of the zone, and he creates more self-inflicted damage than you’d want from someone throwing six-plus innings. There are things he gets away with at the minor-league level due to the quality of his stuff that just won’t fly as a big leaguer, and his ability to throw quality strikes will be something to watch for certain in 2016. [Ed. Note: Below is a sequence from spring training of each of Stephenson's pitches. Fastball to Napoli, curve then change to Lindor.]
Immediate Big-League Future: Maybe it’s simplistic, and maybe it’s true about every major-league pitcher ever, but it’s pretty straightforward: if Stephenson throws strikes, he has a chance to be an excellent major-league pitcher. He can miss bats with three pitches, and you can’t say that about too many guys in baseball right now. He doesn’t have to be Carlos Silva, but if he can be around the strike zone with that arsenal, he has a chance to be successful immediately. If he can’t, he’ll likely get hit around, and you might just see him pitching in the bullpen. I’d bet on the former, but the latter is (unfortunately) very much in play. —Christopher Crawford
Fantasy Take: Despite the fact that Stephenson is making his major-league debut this week, there is still quite a difference between what he is now and what he could be if he reaches his ceiling. The issue is his command and control. He posted a cringeworthy 4.89 BB/9 in AA in 2014 and his 4.70 BB/9 in 2015 across Double-A and Triple-A wasn’t much better. He has consistently demonstrated the ability to strike out more than a batter per inning with his fastball/curveball combination, but without some significant improvement to his walk rate, he won’t be much of a fantasy asset. His value to fantasy owners will come in the form of strikeouts, but that value will be cancelled out by the negative impact his walks will have on your team’s WHIP.
In the short term, note that Robert Stephenson is currently scheduled to make only one start for the Reds against the Phillies. Unless the Reds change their plans, Stephenson will not be making a second start in the majors for an undetermined period. That one start is a good matchup, though, so if you’re looking to take a risk on a spot start, he is a good bet against a Phillies lineup that contains a lot of strikeouts and not much plate discipline. He should rack up whiffs and might walk less batters than usual due to the Phillies’ free-swinging ways.
In the medium-term, Stephenson doesn’t face much competition for a role in the Reds’ rotation during their rebuild. If he performs well in the minors in the first half of this season, the pitchers occupying the back end of the Reds’ rotation won’t block him. If the Reds decide to move Stephenson to the bullpen, he could be back in the majors sooner. Like the Reds’ rotation, their bullpen isn’t stacked with high-end options, so Stephenson could end up with a high-leverage role quickly with a fast start. A move to the bullpen would put a much lower cap on his potential future value, though, unless he ends up claiming the closer’s role.
In the long-term, Stephenson is a good gamble, but he’s a gamble nonetheless. His command and control will have to improve for Stephenson to be more than a no. 3 starter. That type of improvement doesn’t always happen for pitching prospects with Stephenson’s specific problems. He could be an elite reliever even if the command prevents him from starting, scrapping his changeup and relying on his lethal fastball/changeup combination.
In keeper leagues with minor league systems, Stephenson almost definitely isn’t available. He’s been a fixture on top prospect lists across the industry for the last two or three years. If your tolerance for risk is high, Stephenson is a good play. He has a long way to go to reach his ceiling, but that ceiling is sky-high with his repertoire. The version of Stephenson we’ve seen for the last two years is probably playable in a fantasy rotation, but only towards the back end of the rotation on a team that is desperate for strikeouts and can absorb a hit in WHIP. And if he ends up in the bullpen, his value takes a big hit unless he ascends all the way to the closer’s role. That isn’t impossible in the Reds’ makeshift bullpen, though.
If you’re playing for this year, stay away from putting Stephenson in your lineup unless you don’t have any points to gain or lose in WHIP. If you’re playing for 2017 or beyond, he’s is a pitcher to target if you’re not the risk-averse type. Even if you’re not inclined to put Stephenson in your active lineup, he could still be a decent trade chip due to his prospect pedigree and the fact that your league probably contains at least one owner who prefers upside to certainty. —Scooter Hotz
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