Stephenson Makes AAA Debut

Though they’re still struggling to get back to .500 on the season, the Reds have provided some excitement this season by getting some nice outings from rookie pitchers. Top prospect Robert Stephenson is now making a splash which has punched his ticket to AAA.

Louisville had somewhat of a double-header Friday when they completed a suspended game against visiting Columbus that ended in a 7-1 loss and came back to win 3-2 in the nightcap. Top Reds prospect Robert Stephenson made his AAA debut in the second game and collected his first International League win. Two games shortened the contests to seven innings, of which Stephenson completed five while allowing four hits/three walks and striking out six. Jumbo Diaz took over for the final two frames and shut out the Clippers for the save. It was his tenth appearance for the Bats since coming down from the Reds and he lowered his ERA to 1.42.

The Bats took the early lead in the bottom of the first inning when the first three batters singled to load the bases. They probably expected more, but the next hitter ground into a double play that plated their only run of the inning. After falling behind in the third Brennan Boesch tied the game in the fourth with a solo homer. Ryan LaMarre led off the fifth with a double and scored the winning run on a two-base hit from Irvin Falu. Falu did his job leading off by going 2-2 with a walk while Boesch also added two hits.

Starting his first game at the minor league’s highest development level was a memorable experience for the 22 year-old Stephenson, and one that didn’t appear likely earlier in the season. He returned to AA Pensacola to start this season, the same place where he spent the entire 2014 season. The Reds probably expected him to start off the season strong after so much prior experience in the Southern League, but instead he gave up sixteen earned runs in eighteen-plus innings over his first four appearances, including an outing when he was knocked out of the game in the first inning.

After that however, he got on the right track and turned in seven quality starts out of his next ten appearances. Overall during that span he went 4-4 with a 2.36 ERA and a K/BB ratio of 67/31 across 61 innings pitched. That walk rate was a bit high, but he managed it well by striking out more than one per inning and holding opposing hitters to a .166 average. Included in that run was a three-game stretch starting on May 29 where he allowed only three runs/seven hits while tossing 22 innings.

There have been high hopes for Stephenson since Cincinnati selected the right-hander in the first round back in 2011. Since then one common theme in his advancement has been caution and he didn’t throw his first minor league pitch until the short season started in 2012. He zipped up the system and pitched at three levels in 2013, but he did not really appear challenged until he reached AA. He made only four appearances in the Southern League in 2013, but when he came back last year he was hindered by a walk rate around five per nine innings and his ERA was inflated to nearly five.

Though he’s gotten his ernie down below four on the season, his walk rate still about the same as the previous season. He has shown improved command with his curveball that he uses to compliment his mid-90’s fastball and development on a split-finger changeup has made it into a legitimate third offering. Recently he also made comments that his consistency improved when he slowed down his pace making his delivery more repeatable.

Through his ups and downs over the past couple of seasons one thing that has never changed has been Cincinnati’s plan to have the Stephenson atop the Reds rotation. Now the question is how soon that will happen. First he has to hold his own against older competition at the new level. Should he succeed, comments from Reds manager Bryan Price suggest he could be a candidate for an MLB debut as early as this season should the need arise. Even if it doesn’t, he could get the call to join the club after roster expansion. He’s not on the 40-man roster, but the Reds should not have a problem clearing a spot for him if they feel the time is right.

Cincinnati has enjoyed a few seasons with a relatively stable rotation, but there appears to be massive turnover over the next year. Two of last year’s starters were traded during the offseason and the consensus is that Johnny Cueto will soon be a goner. Mike Leake is probably also available for the right price and Homer Bailey isn’t expected to ready by opening day 2016 following his Tommy John surgery. The Reds have already started four different rookie pitchers this season; two are now on the DL while the other two have been taking regular turns running out to the mound. Stephenson’s performance in the International League now will go a long way in determining how soon he’ll crash the party.

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