Christopher Crawford of ESPN.com wrote an article on Thursday, it’s titled “Prospects facing make-or-break years“. It’s for Insiders only, but on the list is Cincinnati Reds right handed pitcher Robert Stephenson.

At this point, I’d be surprised if he didn’t end up in the bullpen,” the NL Central scout said. “And he should be pretty good there. There are three strikeout pitches in his arsenal. That being said, I can’t blame Cincinnati for giving him a chance to start, for that same reason.

There’s more at the link, but essentially that covers it. It’s been a tough past few season for Stephenson. When he’s been on, he’s really been on. But, he’s also had some real stretches of struggle with his control.

The scout quoted above says it all: He’s got three strikeout pitches (all three rate out as plus pitches) to work with. You just don’t see that from many guys. That is why I think that having him included in this article is a bit of a stretch. Robert Stephenson is going to be 24-years-old in the 2017 season. He’s got one of the best arms in the organization, even if he can’t always use it to execute things. Giving up on arms like that, early, isn’t always the best idea.

I’ve made the comparison between Homer Bailey and Robert Stephenson in the past. It’s worth bringing up again. Homer Bailey started showing real improvements at age 24 in the big leagues. It wasn’t until he was 26 that he took that big step forward to being an above-average big league pitcher. Pitchers, unlike hitters, don’t improve/develop on a bell curve. One of the best pitchers in baseball over the last three seasons, Jake Arrieta didn’t even make his debut until he was 24. He wasn’t a league average pitcher until he was 28.

At the same time, not everyone can follow that path. Andrew Miller was much like Robert Stephenson. Big, big arm. Struggled to throw strikes, couldn’t establish himself. He started with the Tigers, Marlins and Red Sox until he was 27. That’s when he moved into the bullpen and when he began to absolutely dominate.

I have seen enough from Robert Stephenson that I can envision him turning into a dominant big league starting pitcher. I’ve also seen enough of Robert Stephenson to think there’s a chance he doesn’t get the control figured out enough, and heard enough people inside of baseball echo that sentiment, to think that eventually he is going to wind up in the bullpen. What I feel more confident in than either of those things though, is that 2017 is not a make-or-break season when it comes to determining his future role. Teams don’t tend to give up and move on from arms like his at 24 or 25-years-old too often.

27 Responses

  1. DHud

    Make or break, maybe not. But you’re definitely not feeling very good if he does struggle again. Especially with the depth the Reds now have at SP.

    That may be the biggest difference between Stephenson and Bailey. When Bailey was cutting his teeth it was pretty much a safe bet for him and Cueto to get a spot in the rotation. Matt Belisle and Eric Milton weren’t exactly locking their slots in place…

    • Doug Gray

      This is certainly true – there was more reason to stick with Bailey because of the options. With that said, Stephenson still shows more pure stuff than anyone that would be taking a spot in front of him, and if, say, he’s doing very nice things wherever he’s at (be it the bullpen in that multi-inning role, or in Triple-A as a starter) he’s probably going to get that chance again if someone shows some signs of any struggle.

      • MuddyCleats

        A good article which shows both sides of the issue. I don’t think he will figure it out as a SP, but feel he has enough potential left to make a great TRADE piece if paired w/ the right pieces to the “right” team. If Stephenson, Winker & maybe one more player could bring Quintana would U do it? Always could flip Quintana 4 two more players like Stephenson & Winker in future?? Quintana 4yrs of control & reasonable contract

  2. Arnold Ziffle

    DG,
    Big, big differences between Homer Bailey and Robert Stephenson. Bailey was in the big leagues at age 24. Robert Stephenson cannot even get over the AAA hump at 24.
    If Stephenson isn’t moved to the bullpen, then trade him. He is starting to become an obstacle in the starting pitching progression of others. He has had his chances.
    Stephenson added to Lorenzen and Iglesias might work out.

    • Doug Gray

      Robert Stephenson hasn’t thrown a pitch as a 24-year-old.

      This line of thinking is what I’m talking about though. He’s not an obstacle to anyone. Cody Reed went to Triple-A, pitched well, and got the call long before Stephenson did. Why? Stephenson wasn’t performing. That’s going to keep happening until he does perform.

      But to say he’s had his chances is a bit much.

  3. Norwood Nate

    I wouldn’t shut the door on Stephenson starting until he’s with out of options or others have definitively claimed rotation spots (i.e. Garrett, Reed, Romano etc)

    • The Duke

      Bingo. MLB is riddled with starting pitchers who didn’t put it all together until their mid to late 20’s. As long as he has options, they shouldn’t give up on him as a starter. Once he is out of options, if he isn’t one of the 5 best starting pitchers on the Reds, then you move to the bullpen. The only other way is if the Reds are a serious contender and they need a live bullpen arm, and don’t want to trade for one. Even then only of there are no other good options.

    • Bill

      Spot on … too much potential to kick to the curb at the end of 2017.

  4. Hod Eller

    It would be foolish to give up on Stephenson if he struggles again in ’17. He’s had all of 8 major league starts so far. That’s not even close to having “had his chances.” For the reasons Doug mentions, his unique potential buys him a lot of leverage. He’s still young and might require another couple of seasons before achieving that potential. The Reds do have other young options but Stephenson is the one with top-of-rotation potential. We all want these guys to succeed ASAP but it rarely happens that way.

    • davidmac84

      With respect with Stephenson: I believe the value that organizations place on Relievers is on the rise. If you can take Robert and place him in a role were he is pitching 80-90 IPs but higher leverage situations: he can capture maybe 70 percent of a starters value.
      I do see him destined for the BullPen: but if can excel in this role- the Reds can have a nasty bullpen with Igleas, Lorenzen and Stephenson and turn their major negative into a strength.
      Hopefully- he has that breakthrough and gets his control . If not if he can excel in a RP role that is still a great outcome.

  5. Cam

    To me, Robert Stephenson shouldn’t run out of opportunity this year because of his performance, but only if other guys force their way into the opportunity.

    Just too talented to give up on this early. Have to give him every chance to go out and do it.

  6. MK

    Have never understood the theory of putting a pitcher with poor control in the bullpen. Seems the Reds have had too many relievers that come into a game unable to throw strikes.

    • Doug Gray

      Because they tend to drop a pitch, usually their worst one, which tends to let them throw a few more strikes. Toss in that their stuff plays up some, which also gives hitters a slightly smaller amount of time to react, also tends to let them throw a few extra strikes as guys will chase every so often now that maybe they could have held up on. Then, lastly, is that they only see the guy once.

      Generally speaking, guys going from the rotation to the bullpen lower their strikeout rates. There’s a lot of reasons that could be at play, but by and large, it works.

    • davidmac84

      There is alot of very successful RP with BB rates over 4: almost no Starters.
      Basically, you would expect his K rate to dramatically spike in a Relief Role and have numbers like 10k/ 4.5BB can definitely work.
      The Andrew Miller comparision is first 2 years as a RP: he was 11.3/4.5 and then 15/5.
      He was a valuable RP in these 2 years and then had a breakthrough year in 2014 where is BB rate dropped to 2.4.

  7. redleggingfordayz

    IF HE COULD JUST THROW STRIKES! But seriously, I think people are really dismissing Stephenson’s potential here. While he has struggled with control, you don’t give up on an arm like his until he has made at least 1.5 years worth of starts/and or is out of options to the minors. I think he is pretty much a lock for closer material if he doesn’t pan out as a starter because I see his fastball getting quite a few upticks if he is coming out as a reliever. Just give him a chance and be patient. If he can’t grasp it after a real extended look, move him to the bullpen.

  8. Jer-B

    Relax people. If you don’t give a 24 year old with that kind of stuff every chance to start, you don’t know what the hell you’re doing. Keep him shuffling back and forth starting for AAA and the big leagues until he earns a full time big league spot or is out of options. Not really a tough decision.

  9. Matthew O'Neal

    No way you give up on him yet. Going into age 24 Cueto had a career 4.61 ERA and 3.5 BB/9. And that was with 2 full years (61 starts) compared to Bob Steves 8. Gotta give him time. He either finds his way and you get a dominant starter or he goes to the pen and you’ve got a great pen arm. What’s to lose?

  10. wes

    It’ll never be make or break with him. Pitchers are all over the place and then 1 day they get it together for some period of time…Dickey, Arrietta, and a ton of other guys didn’t put it together til much later in their careers. Others are all but finished by the time they are 27 just fulfilling contracts….One day Stephenson will be very special, just hope he is still a Red when that happens!

    I start him at beginning of season and don’t pull him out of lineup unless he’s hurt. Let him struggle and get a better understanding of what we got long term. Who care’s if he looses every game; we need to pick at top of draft 1 more time anyway.

  11. Arnold Ziffle

    Stephenson had 8 starts for the Reds in 2016. He threw 37 innings. His fastball averaged 93.1 mph in those 8 ML starts, per fangraphs.
    Whatever happened to Stephenson’s 97-99mph fastball? He has to be moved to the bullpen to regain that velocity. Stephenson only has 3 pitches, fastball, curveball, and and change-up. This sounds more like bullpen material and good bullpen material with that third pitch.

    • Doug Gray

      Stephenson hasn’t thrown that hard in quite a while. Still touches there, but he’s stopped trying to throw it by people in order to try and get some control. He still sits 93-96 most games, which, for a starter, is well above-average. even today when everyone throws hard. Most pitchers only throw 3 pitches, so I’m not sure what you mean by that sounds like bullpen material.

    • Reaganspad

      Walt? Walt J…. is that you?

      Sounds like you just posting under your anonymous handle Arnold Ziffle

  12. Gaffer

    It seems that the 3 best arms in the system have a better chance than not of being in the bullpen, Lorenzen, Iglesius, and Stephenson. Finnegan may be 4. That could make for a great bullpen or a terrible starting 5. Heck, you could argue the future may be bullpen for many of our prospects like Romano, Garrett and even a Travieso

    • Wes

      If that holds true- lornezen and ilglesius are expendable. Brewers have top 5 farm system for what they got for their 8 and 9 inning guys last deadline.

  13. MuddyCleats

    Same ole Reds; still struggle developing SP ?? Their history is loaded w/ quality relievers, but very few home grown SP of any account. Gullett, Soto, Browning & Cueto R the exceptions

  14. ScottyA

    One thing appears to be very clear; by 2018 we will have a dominating bullpen. I hope Stephenson can figure it out, but if not he would be very good as a 8th or 9th inning guy.

    • MuddyCleats

      IDK, throwing hard does NOT equal dominating in & of itself. Reds already have guys who throw hard, but NOT many quality relievers!