Entering the first game of a doubleheader on July 26th, the High-A Tampa Tarpons were hoping that their starting pitcher, Trevor Stephan, could rebound from what to that point had been a terrible season. The Opening Day starter for Double-A Trenton had struggled so much that he was demoted a level in the middle of the year.
That evening, Stephan went out and pitched seven perfect innings on his way to a strong finish to his season. Heading into 2020, if Stephan can harness his arsenal of pitches, he could find himself on the verge of a major-league call-up, or, continued struggles could see him bypassed by the bevy of high-ceiling arms moving to the upper levels of the system.
Stephan entered the 2017 MLB draft coming off a tremendous campaign pitching for the University of Arkansas. In that 2017 season, he led all SEC starting pitchers with a 11.9 K/9 rate, higher than numerous highly-regarded pitchers like Kyle Wright, Clarke Schmidt, and the next year’s number-one overall pick, Casey Mize. While still viewed as a limited two-pitch pitcher with a less than ideal cross-body delivery, his performance was enough for the Yankees to take Stephan in the third round of the draft.
Once in the Yankees system, he moved quickly, becoming just the second pitcher from the 2017 draft to reach the Double-A level behind the Angels’ Griffin Canning. Using the same mid-90’s fastball that can touch 97 mph, and a very good slider that he used in college, Stephan controlled hitters in the lower levels of the minors. Beginning 2018 with High-A Tampa, he recorded a 2.32 ERA with a 10.77 K/9 rate over his first 12 starts of the season, including his first five after a promotion to Double-A Trenton. Around the time of his promotion to Trenton, some scouts even thought he could help some of the bullpens around the majors immediately.
Stephan’s rapid rise through the system hit a snag as he entered the summer months with Trenton. After showing nothing but excellence over his first 12 starts, he was roughed up for a 5.25 ERA and a declining strikeout rate over his last 12 starts of 2018. The Yankees and many scouts still loved his arm entering 2019, and he garnered a look in major-league camp during spring training. Aaron Boone was among those impressed, saying before Stephan’s Grapefruit League debut “he’s someone who caught my eye a little bit”.
Stephan’s run in camp was short-lived, and despite showing flashes of impressive stuff, he again struggled at the Double-A level in 2019. After a stint on the injured list with back pain, Stephan continued to struggle and was sent down to High-A Tampa. Stephan’s poor results on the season only served to make his perfect game feel more out of place and unlikely when it occurred in late July. He quickly followed it up with more excellent outings to prove it was not a one-off. Over his last five games, he recorded a 0.67 ERA with a 1.01 WHIP including two games back with Double-A Trenton.
Stephan will likely start 2020 once again with Double-A Trenton. He will need to build off his late-season success and continue refining his arsenal of pitches. Stephan did not throw a changeup until after he was drafted and began his professional career. Trenton manager Pat Osborn said “he’s shown the makings of a really good changeup, and for him to get where he wants to be as a starting pitcher and for him to get where we believe he can get to, that changeup’s going to have to keep developing.”
Armed with two plus pitches, Stephan has the tools to be a solid major league reliever if the Yankees choose to focus him on that path. 2020 will be a big season for him, as the Yankees will be looking for signs that he can stick as a starer at the higher levels. With the systemwide pitching program now being run by Sam Briend of Driveline Baseball, Stephan could prove to be one of the biggest beneficiaries as he seeks to maximize his live arm and immense potential.