Stephenson Smoking Hot

Robert Stephenson’s start to this season was disappointing as he continued to struggle despite being a year older and at the same level. He’s putting that behind him now while working on a streak of twenty scoreless innings and showing AAA readiness.

Many have considered Robert Stephenson the top prospect in the Cincinnati system for a while now and he’s been a consensus member of various MLB top 100 prospects for the last three years. The right-hander was the Reds first round selection in 2011 and the start to his professional career did a lot to help him earn the lofty rankings. He waited until a year after he was drafted to debut in the 2012 short season, but after that he fast-tracked up to AA Pensacola for cup of coffee in just his second season.

That’s when he began to stub his toe. He struggled in AA in 2013, but that was just four games, so no need to worry. He returned to the Southern League to start last season and had his ups and downs en route to a disappointing 7-10/4.75 ERA, but again it was too early to sound the alarm because he was young for the level. Then came 2015 when he returned to the Blue Wahoos again with expectations of finally mastering the level, but instead he was sitting on an ernie around five and a quarter after eight starts.

Perhaps there were some double takes on Stephenson when he struggled in AA again. He’s has the mid-upper 90’s heat that brought so much attention to him in the first place, but against more disciplined AA hitters he’s walked more than five per nine innings, a frequency more than 50% higher than what he issued against single-A hitters in 2013. Was he promoted too fast? Is he headed to the bullpen where command challenges are less of an issue? Will he be unable to develop a third pitch, again forcing him to the bullpen?

Or was he just around the corner from making everything click? After his past couple of starts that appears to be the case because he’s put up consecutive scoreless outings while allowing only four hits over fifteen innings. Also, it appears those command issues are being put to rest because he’s struck out seventeen against only two walks during that time. As impressive as his 7 IP/three hit appearance at Mississippi was last week, he outdid it Thursday when he allowed only one hit/one walk over eight frames at Mobile.

In addition, though he’s been in the Southern League in parts of the past three seasons, he’s still young for the level at 22. His current streak of 20 scoreless innings has chopped his ERA down under four and now he’s looking like a candidate for a AAA debut before the end of the season. An expansion call is unlikely but he’s on the cusp of working himself into the mix next year when Cincinnati once again whittles down its spring training invites to an opening day roster.

After enjoying a span of effective starting pitching that was previously atypical for this franchise, there is now massive turnover. It appears it’s not quite over either with the likely departure Johnny Cueto who is in a contract year. Jon Moscot’s MLB debut Friday made him the fourth rookie to start this season and it appears like youngsters will be tossing a lot innings to cover for Homer Bailey’s Tommy John surgery and Jason Marquis’s DFA. No doubt about it, the Cincinnati front office still has Stephenson projected as its ace and that’s not likely to change anytime soon, even if he has some more bumps in the road. Bailey probably won’t be ready to return for opening day and Mike Leake might be a goner too if the right offer comes along. There’s a possibility that the 2016 Cincinnati opening day rotation could be made up entirely of rookie and sophomore pitchers.

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