Righty reliever drawing significant interest

righty reliever drawing significant interest

Tampa Bay Rays relief pitcher Robert Stephenson.

Free agent Robert Stephenson is proving to be quite popular this offseason, reports Jon Morosi of MLB.com. He is drawing interest from the Dodgers, Cubs and Angels, as well as other unnamed clubs.

Stephenson, 31 in February, was one of the lesser known names on MLBTR’s list of the Top 50 Free Agents, where he was pegged for a four-year, $36M deal. The righty had struggled with injuries and underperformance at various times in his career but had a well-timed breakout just before he hit the open market.

He was traded from the Pirates to the Rays in early June and then started throwing a cutter instead of a slider, with phenomenal results. He went on to make 42 appearances after heading to Tampa, posting an earned run average of 2.35 in 38 1/3 innings. He struck out an incredible 42.9% of batters faced while walking just 5.7%. Among pitchers with at least 30 innings pitched in that time, that strikeout rate was third in the majors, trailing only Félix Bautista, Aroldis Chapman and Pete Fairbanks. Stephenson had a lower walk rate than all three of those players, making his 37.1% K-BB% ratio tops in the majors in that time frame.

That’s a fairly small sample of work, but Stephenson once had a strong prospect pedigree. He was a first-round pick of the Reds in 2011 and was on Baseball America’s top 100 list in four straight years from 2013 to 2016, getting as high as #19 in 2014. He reached the majors as a starter and posted fairly lackluster results, with an ERA of 5.47 at the end of 2018, having thrown 133 1/3 major league innings in that time.

A move to the bullpen seemed to help, as he made 57 appearances in 2019 with an ERA of 3.76. But in 2020, he missed roughly a month due to a mid-back strain and allowed 11 earned runs in the 10 innings he was able to pitch in the shortened season. He was traded to the Rockies prior to 2021 and managed to get back on track, despite making Coors Field his home, posting a 3.13 ERA in 49 appearances that year. But 2022 saw him struggle with a 6.04 ERA in 45 appearances for the Rockies before getting claimed off waivers by the Pirates in August.

His most recent season got off to a slow start, as he had some right arm discomfort in the spring and started the season on the injured list. He eventually made 18 appearances for the Pirates this year but showed some rust, walking 13.1% of opponents and allowing 5.14 earned runs per nine. But as mentioned, a midseason trade to the Rays preceded a tremendous step forward.

Now Stephenson seems positioned to cash in. Though his big breakout was just a few months of work, he was one of the best relievers in the league in that time. It didn’t come completely out of nowhere, as he had once been a highly-touted youngster and had a couple of seasons of decent relief work recently. Teams have made huge gambles on relievers based on small samples before. Drew Pomeranz got four years and $34M, Robert Suarez five years and $46M and Rafael Montero got three years and $34.5M. All three had fairly limited or inconsistent track records but some flashy underlying numbers that the signing club was betting on.

It would take a change in strategy for the Cubs to be seriously in on Stephenson. Since Jed Hoyer was promoted to president of baseball operations, they have stuck to one-year deals for relievers, signing guys like Mychal Givens, Michael Fulmer, David Robertson, Andrew Chafin, Brad Boxberger, Chris Martin, Ryan Tepera and others with mixed results. None got more than $5M, and getting Stephenson will surely take more than that on an annual basis and for multiple years. But the Cubs have been rebuilding for much of that time and may be willing to push a little farther after just missing the playoffs in 2023. The club’s relievers had a collective ERA of 3.85 in 2023, which placed them 13th in the league.

The Dodgers’ bullpen had a 3.42 ERA in 2023, which was third-best in the league, and most of their key relievers are still under club control for 2024. Adding another high-octane arm would seemingly be more of a luxury buy than a necessity, especially when they have needs in the rotation and could potentially give a massive contract to Shohei Ohtani. But per Roster Resource, they are roughly $80M below the competitive balance tax and well below previous franchise highs, so maybe they have enough to address everything on their to-do list and go after Stephenson.

The Angels have often struggled to put together a decent bullpen and that was again the case in 2023, with a collective ERA of 4.88 that was better than just five clubs. They tried to spend some money to address that issue a few years ago by signing Raisel Iglesias to a four-year deal, but he was flipped to Atlanta after just a year and a half. The club has been struggling to get above .500 in recent years but has no plans of rebuilding this winter, even if Ohtani winds up going elsewhere.

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