Top 30 Cincinnati Prospects: No. 1

Robert Stephenson is once again the top-rated Cincinnati prospect heading into this season. Challenges with command in AA last year has slowed down his MLB arrival, but he is still on track to be part of a draft class in 2011 that may go down as one of the deepest in years for pitching talent.

The top-rated Cincinnati prospect on this year’s list is the same as last year’s, right-hander Robert Stephenson. He spent the entire season at Pensacola last year and stubbed his toe against AA competition, but he was still young for the level and there’s been no change in the Reds plans for his future. Overall he went 7-10/4.74 ERA while leading the Blue Wahoos with 140 strikeouts which was a slightly more than the number of innings he pitched.

Looking back, he was probably pushed up the system a bit too rapidly in 2013 when he started out at low-A and finished with four starts in the Southern League. He’s now 22 years old and shown that he’s not ready for a spot in the Reds rotation yet, but he’ll have an opportunity to change that over the 2015 season. Depending on how well Cincinnati fares with re-signing Johnny Cueto, Stephenson could have some big shoes to fill one year from now.

He’s been a consensus member in overall MLB top 100 prospect lists the past few years, mainly because of the high-90’s velocity he generates out of his 6’3”/195# frame. He needs to improve on his secondary offerings, but there’s still belief that both his breaking ball and changeup can both be above average pitches. First up right now is improving his command, which issued almost five walks per nine innings against Southern League hitters in 2014.

There has been a couple of different handling strategies with Stephenson since Cincinnati drafted him with their first round pick in 2011. At first they were cautious and he didn’t pitch competitively until the short season the next year. A sharp start at Billings got him promoted to Dayton where he returned to begin last season. 2014 was a different story as he saw action at three different levels.

Now Cincinnati needs to decide where he’ll begin the upcoming season and that will be done while he pitches as a non-roster invite at spring training. They’ll probably opt to let him improve at the AA level again. He did hit a period around May of last year where he put together some solid starts and appeared to have mastered the level, but he was unable to sustain it. One thing he has improved during his minor league career is polishing his delivery to where he still dial up the heat with less effort, which is going to be important for him to have durability needed as he progresses.

It’s a shame that Stephenson isn’t going to be ready for an MLB debut as soon as was earlier anticipated because there are two rotation spots up for grabs after payroll constraints led to offseason trades that removed Mat Latos and Alfredo Simon. However, just because he’ll need more time for development doesn’t diminish the high ceiling on his potential right now. He should hit AAA sometime in the upcoming season with plans to move him into the parent team’s rotation next year. If he’s ready before then the Reds will probably have an opportunity to let him prove it. A call-up after roster expansion is likely, but right now the more realistic expectation is to see Stephenson take ownership of an MLB rotation spot in 2016.

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