The Reds' starting pitching has been decimated by injuries this spring, as Anthony DeSclafani, John Lamb, and Michael Lorenzen all ended up starting the season on the disabled list. With Homer Bailey still recovering from Tommy John surgery as well, the Reds made the somewhat surprising decision to call up top pitching prospect Robert Stephenson, who will make his major league debut on Thursday against Philadelphia. Let's take a look at his potential now that he's in the majors.
Stephenson was the Reds' first round pick back in 2011 out of a Northern California high school, debuting professionally in 2012. He broke out in 2013, starting the season in Low-A Dayton but finishing with four starts at AA Pensacola. The overall numbers were excellent that year, striking out 136 and walking 35 with a 2.99 ERA in 114 innings pitched.
He returned to Pensacola for the 2014 season, and struggled mightily with his control. The strikeouts remained high (140 in 136 IP), but with 74 walks and 18 home runs allowed. The Reds sent him back to Pensacola again in 2015, and he was a bit up and down there through 14 starts. Promoted to AAA, he finished the year there with another 11 starts, but the control struggles continued. He notched another 140 strikeouts, but added 70 walks to go with it over 134 innings pitched.
The Overall Outlook
Coming into the season, we had Stephenson as our #33 consensus fantasy prospect, and the top prospect in the Reds' system. The upside is a potential top-of-the-rotation starting pitcher based on his pure repertoire, but the issues with walks hurt his overall value to fantasy owners. Until he can show consistency from start to start with regard to that issue, he's more likely to end up as a mid-rotation type that will have days where you want to pull your eyes out (Think Francisco Liriano circa 2009-2012).
Stephenson is only expected to be up for a spot start, as the hope is that Anthony DeSclafani will be ready to return from the disabled list in short order. However, given that they are calling him up for this start, I can see Stephenson being the first call for future spot starts or as an injury replacement. With that said, I would look to use him in specific starts based on the opponent in shallow formats, as he can still kill you with walks even with the potential good strikeout totals.
The potential for Stephenson is still of a top-tier starting pitcher, capable of providing high strikeout totals and possibly becoming an elite starting pitcher. However, until he can show that his control won't inflate his rate stats, he's likely to slot in toward the back of the top 50 starting pitchers at best. This call up does not particularly change his overall outlook, just his timeline.