I've been meaning to write about Robert Stephenson for some time now, but then again you always think you have more time than you do. Given that this was my last chance to write about him for Fake Teams (unless he gets promoted between now and Wednesday night), I had to take it. Drafted 27th overall in the 2011 draft, Stephenson was probably best known for throwing back-to-back no hitters in high school. An impressive feat, no doubt, Stephenson was a big fastball and not a ton else at the time - perfect for the back end of the first round. The former Washington Huskie-commit signed with Cincinnati for an above-slot $2 million and despite racking up only 65 career innings before 2013 was one of the Reds' top prospects.
Stephenson appears to be making a habit of hitting two levels per season. He signed too late to appear in 2011, but split the 2012 season between rookie ball and Lo-A, totaling 72 strikeouts in 65 innings pitched against only 23 walks. While he experienced a bit of an adjustment period upon his midseason promotion to Lo-A Dayton (lower K/9, higher BB/9, much higher H/9), Stephenson appeared to have ironed out all those issues by the time 2013 rolled around. In 77 Hi-A innings this year Stephenson punched out 96 batters, good for an 31% K% against a meager 20 walks (6.5 BB%). Since being promoted to Hi-A Bakersfield in the California League, Stephenson might have been even better. While his K% has taken a slight dip to 26.5%, he's walking a minute 2.4% of batters faced, and currently has a 3.25 FIP in a league that offers few respites for pitchers. When a pitcher has a fastball as extreme as Stephenson's, the question always remains whether they're simply overpowering weaker hitters. This question will be answered as Stephenson moves through the system, but it's clear that Stephenson can hold his own, even in the harshest of environs.
Stuff wise, it's hard to top what Stephenson can bring to the table. The fastball grades out as a future 80 (!). It's got premium velocity and can touch triple digits. It does flatten out at higher velos, but shows excellent life when it sits in the mid 90s. He gets good plane on the ball thanks to a high arm slot. Stephenson controls the pitch well but could stand to sharpen his command. He throws strikes, but the goal is quality strikes and he will occasionally get hit harder than he should because he leaves the ball where he shouldn't within the zone. He holds his velocity deep into games as well. Stephenson's curveball was coming around during his senior season and has continued it's progress in his time as a pro. It clocks in the the low to mid 80s, showing tight spin when it's on. He will still hang plenty of these, but when the pitch is on, it's not fair to Hi-A batters. Stephenson's third pitch is a hard change up that should arrive in the mid 80s but is often too firm, not showing enough separation from the fastball and losing any movement. It lags behind his curveball at the moment but there's promise here, as it's more than just a show me pitch. He can show a feel for it at times, and when he does there is solid movement. It's unlikely to be more than an average pitch down the road, but given his other offerings, he might not need it to be. Stephenson has great athleticism which helps him repeat his mechanics and allows him to find the strikezone more often than not. To take another step forward, Stephenson will have to show better command and the ability to put the ball where he wants it within the strikezone, instead of just living off his stuff.
With all the makings of the top of a rotation starter, beginning with that prodigious fastball, it's tempting to call Stephenson an ace in the making. In reality though, we would have to see a step forward in his curveball, and maybe even his change up, along with improvement in command before he gets that moniker. That said, I'm not here to denigrate Stephenson. On the contrary, I think he profiles as a solid number two starter and someone who will pitch at the top of a major league rotation. Number one pitchers are rare breeds, indeed, and having a guy like Stephenson to front a rotation is a fine situation to be in. If he continues at his current pace (two levels per season), Stephenson would reach Cincinnati by mid 2016. I think the Reds might push him a little bit ahead of that schedule, meaning a late 2015 or early 2016 arrival. He's already moving up prospect lists, so if you were lucky enough to bag him (as I was) early this season, you could flip him for a nice profit. That said, if you can acquire him before the trade deadline in your league I think he sees an even bigger surge in value when top 100 lists come out in the offseason, as he could rank in the top 30 of prospects on some lists.