Robert Stephenson stepped on the mound in PNC Park with a 7.86 ERA on August 2nd, 2017, having already surrendered 10 homers in just 34.1 IP that season. The former 1st round pick of the Cincinnati Reds - from the same round that yielded the likes of Gerrit Cole, Francisco Lindor, Anthony Rendon, Trevor Bauer, George Springer, Javy Baez, Sonny Gray, and the late Jose Fernandez ahead of him - had been purged to the team’s bullpen after another round of failed starts, but was back on the mound as a starter in what seemed like a chance with a last-place team to finally, mercifully regain his footing.
For the first time in a long time, things went well for Bob that day. He threw 81 pitches, all of which stayed in the ballpark, and exited after 5.2 innings of 2 hit ball having yielded just a lone earned run. It took him eleven days to get back on the mound - again as a reliever against the Milwaukee Brewers - but got eight more starts before the end of the season as a regular member of a downtrodden Reds rotation.
The results during that stretch were pretty stellar, really, by anyone’s standards, let alone from a pitcher who had fallen from being ranked the #15 overall prospect by Baseball Prospectus prior to the 2015 season to a peripheral member of a crowded young Reds staff. From his first pitch that day in PNC to the end of the season, Stephenson fired 50.1 IP of 2.50 ERA ball, allowing just 2 homers in that span while posting a solid 52/28 K/BB. He’d limited his opponents to just a .631 OPS, and even the BABIP in that span (.268) wasn’t so outlandishly low that you could point to luck as being the lone factor.
Bob Steve was then still just 24 years old, and had seemingly turned the corner with the Reds - something that was oh so desperately needed by the pitching-starved club entering year-four of their massive rebuild.
A year and a half later, though, and a quick glance at the Reds spring training schedule shows Stephenson as the scheduled starter today in Phoenix against the Brewers again, this time as a first-time starter in Cactus League play just six days from the start of the season. Shoulder fatigue has plagued him this spring, but that’s probably just the third most pressing matter concerning the former prize of the Cincinnati farm. He’s out of options - meaning the Reds can’t just ship him back to AAA to start the season without exposing him to waivers - and is fresh off a 2018 campaign that couldn’t have looked any different than those 50.1 innings that wrapped his 2017 season.
Bob threw just 11.2 dreadful big league innings in 2018, dreadful largely to his inability to find the strikezone regardless of which mound he was on. He was shelled for 12 runs in those 11.2 IP - all while walking more batters (12) than he struck out (11) - which flew completely in the face of the rock-solid 2.87 ERA and 1.15 WHIP he posted in 113 innings for AAA Louisville.
At age 26, that’s the issue the Reds face at the moment. Stephenson has shown the ability to miss bats at an elite level all through his minor league days, as his career 9.6 K/9 in MiLB exhibits. For some reason, though, he just tends to nibble when called up to the bigs, which has led to a brutal number of walks, pitching in extreme hitter’s counts, and watching the homers he allows put multiple runs on the board, not just a lone one. And since the Reds finally addressed their starting rotation woes from the outside this winter, only one or two spots in the team’s projected bullpen sit available, and Stephenson doesn’t exactly have an impressive seven-page resume of relief experience.
So, the Reds are in a bit of a pickle, complicated in part due to Matt Wisler’s situation on the roster as an also out-of-options former top prospect, though at least he has a) looked good in healthy Cactus League play and b) comes with legit experience as a relief pitcher. The Reds could choose to carry Stephenson as the long man in the bullpen to prolong the experiment with turning him into something more than the -1.2 career bWAR pitcher he has been to date, which could buy them some time to, if needed, eventually try to pass him through waivers and keep him in the system if he fails.
That said, his prolific prospect status and the dearth of reasonably reliable pitching options league-wide would probably mean that some team, somewhere would take a flier on a claim of him in hopes that they could finally unlock the great talent that Bob has in his right arm. Pitching-starved teams that aren’t expected to contend like the San Diego Padres or Kansas City Royals - both of whom call very pitcher-friendly parks their home - would probably jump at the chance to see what Stephenson could do in their friendly confines, especially since they’ve each tailored their expected 2019 season as one to experiment while rebuilding.
Since rosters have to be set within the week, that means that this start, today, for Bob Steve might well be the final time we see him in a Reds uniform. Maybe not, but it sure as heck feels that way.
First pitch is set for 4:05 PM ET, and will be on TV for all of you who want to watch the club that just sent Nick Senzel to the minors play baseball that doesn’t yet count instead of watching NCAA Tournament games.