NL Midseason Debuts: Prospects Looking to Make an Impact – #4 Robert Stephenson

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With 25-man rosters set, each team goes into the season looking to compete immediately with the pickups they made in the offseason. But as we saw around the MLB in the 2015, the midseason callups can have as big of an impact as the players obtained in free agency. This series will detail the 5 prospects in the NL looking to make the biggest impact on their respective teams this season.

For the purposes of this series, we will set a few baseline criteria:

  1. The prospect cannot have any previous Major League experience.
  2. The prospect must already be reasonably close to the MLB.
  3. The prospect must play a position of need for his big-league squad, and this need cannot be due to injury.

Be sure to check out the impact cases for the prospects previously covered:

#5 – Nick Williams, PHI, OF

4. Robert Stephenson, CIN, RHP

(Edit: This list was made before it was announced that Stephenson would make his major league debut in a spot start for Cincinnati on April 7)

The Reds made history last year with their string of consecutive games started by rookie pitchers, but the shocking fact is that they might not have even seen their best one. Robert Stephenson, the #33 overall prospect in baseball, looks to make his way into the Reds rotation this year and anchor it for years to come.

Those 2015 rookies included Anthony DeSclafani, Michael Lorenzen, Raisel Iglesias, Keyvius Sampson, along with a few others, totaling 7 in all. While the Reds were able to get an extended look at each, the only pitchers that showed particular promise were DeSclafani and Iglesias. The Reds look to start 2016 with a rotation of Iglesias, DeSclafani, Brandon Finnegan, Alfredo Simon, and Jon Moscot. (Edit: DeSclafani and Moscot began the season on the DL, leading to Stephenson’s spot start. They should be back by mid-April).

Iglesias, a 2014 signee out of Cuba, got off to a good start in his first 95 major-league innings. Striking out a little over a batter an inning (26.3% K%) and walking a below-average number of batters (7.1% BB%), Iglesias impressively posted 1.6 fWAR in little playing time. While he generated a slightly above average number of groundballs (47.2%), he also gave up a much higher than average 13.9% HR/FB. It’s possible that this could be largely because of the hitter-friendly Great American Ball Park, and his xFIP indicated that he pitched well otherwise, at a respectable 3.28. As he pitches more, it will be interesting to see if Iglesias can mature and continue his initial success.

DeSclafani, for a 25 year-old rookie, pitched a remarkably solid season in 2015. Generating consistently average figures in opposing batting average (.268), BABIP (.318), FIP (3.67), xFIP (3.97), GB% (45.1%), HR/FB% (9.1%), and slightly lower than average K% (19.2%) and BB% (7.1%), DeSclafani earned 3.2 fWAR in 184.2 IP. This is a solid performance to build on for the Reds going forward, and a large part of the reason why his rotation spot is secure going forward.

Finnegan was credited only with 48 IP in 2015, 21 of which were in starts for the Reds. While it was certainly a small sample size and not much can be interpreted of his performance, there are a few key takeaways in the numbers. First, Finnegan relies on his sinker a lot, with PITCHf/x putting it at almost 70% of his pitches. In turn, he was able to turn this into a higher than average number of groundballs, at 54.3%. This profile and pitch usage is so extreme that it clearly outlines Finnegan’s goal on the mound. The key to holding his place in the Reds rotation will be the defense behind him, as a lot of balls will be put into play on the ground.

Simon may be the pitcher most at risk of losing his spot in the rotation. In his three years as a starting pitcher in the majors, Simon has repeatedly allowed an above average number of HR/FB (a trait that does not play well to Great American Ball Park), while failing to strike out batters (between 5-6 K/9), allowing an average number of walks, and generating an average number of groundballs. In addition to this, Simon allows almost 2 full percentage points more than average of contact both in and out of the zone, suggesting that his pitch usage does not fool batters. Essentially, Simon does not fit either of the desired profiles of a starting pitcher, i.e. groundball-heavy with control or power pitcher with strikeout material. Combine this with FIP- numbers that have been 10-20 percentage points worse than average, the loss of 2 mph on his fastball since 2013, and the cheap contract (1 year, $2MM) that he signed, and its clear that there is very little incentivizing the Reds to keep him in the rotation if he underperforms.

Moscot only pitched in 11.2 innings in the majors in 2015, but he is known for his low strikeout numbers and decent slider. His fastball is not particularly special (in the low 90s), and he does not have an extreme groundball profile. In other words, Moscot is somewhat of a 24 year-old lottery ticket for the Reds, who hope to get him innings to see if they ultimately have something special. All of this means that he is likely second on the chopping block to lose his spot in the rotation. The Reds likely will show him preferential treatment compared to Simon, as he is less of a known variable.

The Reds also expect Homer Bailey to return sometime in May, bringing life to the rotation, but the fact of the matter is that he, DeSclafani, and Iglesias are the only ones that have a legitimate claim to a guaranteed spot in the rotation. Other options (Finnegan and Moscot included) have shown limited promise, but not enough over an extended period of time. This is a significant part of what opens the door for Stephenson to make an impact, but that isn’t to denounce his own ability.

Walk-Off Hit: Robert Stephenson 2016 Impact Outlook

Stephenson is known for his dominant fastball (consistently mid-90s with the ability to push higher), but as Fangraphs details, his curveball has serious swing-and-miss potential. Only 23 years old, as Stephenson has developed he has become a better pitcher, relying less on flamethrowing fastballs and improving his command. Once he expands his feel for pitch sequencing, he can look to truly make a leap forward into a top of the rotation pitcher.

Even without these skills, Stephenson’s results have been great. Starting 2015 in AA, he earned a promotion to AAA after posting a 10.23 K/9 and holding opposing hitters to a mere .191 average. Once in Louisville at AAA, both numbers regressed slightly, but he still posted a very respectable 8.25 K/9 and .239 average against. Of note however, is that he was able to trade a few strikeouts for less walks, showing increased command. In addition, his average against is still well below the norm, even though his BABIP increased to a much more expected .306. Lastly, his FIP came down from a so-so 4.16 to a very promising 3.35.

It is easy to see one of Simon, Moscot, or Finnegan performing poorly, particularly in the stacked NL Central. If and when this happens, the advanced metrics indicate that Robert Stephenson might indeed be growing into a great young pitcher, and continued success and development at AAA should earn him a spot in the big leagues this year.

What do you think? Will Robert Stephenson become a successful big leaguer with the Reds this year? Who do you think he will replace in the Reds rotation and why? What other prospects do you think belong on this list? Leave your thoughts in the comments below or on Twitter @SaberBallBlog. Don’t forget to subscribe to SaberBallBlog by clicking the green “Follow” button in the menu, and follow on Twitter for all of the latest updates on the MLB!

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