Cincinnati Reds: Robert Stephenson must make the most of his last chance

CINCINNATI, OH - AUGUST 25: Robert Stephenson #55 of the Cincinnati Reds pitches in the second inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Great American Ball Park on August 25, 2017 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
CINCINNATI, OH - AUGUST 25: Robert Stephenson #55 of the Cincinnati Reds pitches in the second inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Great American Ball Park on August 25, 2017 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

People can oftentimes perform best under pressure. No one on the Cincinnati Reds roster enters the 2019 season under more pressure than pitcher Robert Stephenson. In his revised role as a relief pitcher, he could surprise a lot of fans.

Robert Stephenson and Wandy Peralta were the last two players to make the Cincinnati Reds Opening Day roster. Both Peralta and Stephenson enter the 2019 season trying to put last year behind them. For Stephenson, however, this is it. If he doesn’t make it happen out of the gate, there’s a long list of pitchers looking to take his spot. I think he might finally surprise us all.

Robert Stephenson’s career has been nothing to write home about to this point. Drafted in the first round of the 2011 MLB Draft after throwing two no-hitters in high school, Stephenson showed the type of raw talent that every major league team covets. However, like so many before him have shown, the transition from high school to the majors not an easy one.

Stephenson was the first high school pitcher the Cincinnati Reds had chosen in the first round since 2004 when the club elected to take Homer Bailey. Before even making his professional debut, he was already highly ranked and was No. 2 in the Reds’ farm system according to MLB Pipeline after his first taste of professional baseball.

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Robert Stephenson climbed all the way to No. 17, according to MLB Pipeline, in all of Major League Baseball by the 2013 season and he looked like a sure thing after reaching Double-A in just his second year in the Reds system.

Over the next couple of years, Stephenson’s command became an issue. He was once the team’s top prospect, but slowly he was leapfrogged by players like Jesse Winker, Amir Garrett, and even Nick Senzel.

Stephenson made his major league debut on April 7, 2016 following an injury to Homer Bailey. In 8 starts during his rookie year, Stephenson finished the 2016 season 2-3 with a 6.08 ERA in 37 innings of work. In 2017, Stephenson played in 25 games, including 11 starts, and went 5-6 with a 4.68 ERA.

Last season may have been the lowest point of Stephenson’s professional career. The right-hander was rocked in his first start last year against the New York Mets and walked Jacob deGrom (the opposing pitcher) on four straight pitches with the bases loaded and allowed the Mets to take a 2-0 lead. Stephenson finished last season on the DL after playing in only 4 games and recording more walks (12) than strikeouts (11).

I’ve been as critical as anyone in regards to Robert Stephenson, but perhaps David Bell and his staff are doing something good for the young man by putting him in a relief role. On top of that, I don’t expect Stephenson to come in when the stakes are high.

If the Reds are ever up by six runs, then I’ll think you’ll see him enter the game. If the Reds trail by five in the eighth inning, don’t be surprised to see Stephenson trot onto the field. Don’t expect to see Robert Stephenson called upon in a high-leverage situation. If the game is tied in the seventh inning, Bell has a lot more arms who are more trustworthy in the bullpen than Stephenson.

Now, I say all this for the short-term. There’s no way that a player should make the team and be allowed to coast the entire season without playing some meaningful time out there. These guys are professionals after all. However, for a player like Stephenson, I believe he needs to be eased in to high pressure situations as he’s proven over the year to be incapable of living up to expectations.

Robert Stephenson has been blessed with all the God-given talent in the world to be a starting pitcher in the major leagues. He has three plus-pitches, including a dominating fastball and a wicked breaking pitch. His stuff has never been in question, but his command and confidence have always been shaky.

There’s a reason the Cincinnati Reds chose to go with Stephenson over Matt Wisler, who was designated for assignment. Wisler had the much more impressive spring and, just like Stephenson, was out of minor league options. However, the Reds went with their former first-rounder over a player they acquired in a trade just last year.

To be honest, I wasn’t shocked, but I was surprised when the Reds chose Peralta over Wisler. I assumed the organization would option Peralta to Louisville to begin the season despite how good he’d played in Cactus League play. Wisler is now subject to waivers and isn’t a lock to revert to the Reds’ minor league roster.

This season, coming out of the bullpen, will be the least amount of pressure that Stephenson has ever faced. With the depth of the Reds’ starting rotation, even if Stephenson put up amazing numbers, he still wouldn’t even be considered for a starting job.

Being a reliever will also allow Stephenson to focus on his best pitch, his fastball. Stephenson has a plus-fastball that can usually hit the upper 90s. If he’s locating that pitch consistently and is able to use his curveball or off-speed pitch to keep the hitters off balance, then he actually has a chance to be successful out of the pen this season.

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So this is it! Bob Steve’s last shot. If he doesn’t get it done, I’m sure Cody Reed, or Sal Romano, or Brandon Finnegan would love to showcase what they can do to help the Reds win this season. For now, Stephenson is on the 25-man roster and we’re all hoping that he’s finally figured it out.