When they say you can never have enough pitching, the proverbial “they” are right. The Yankees’ current spot has them in a bit of a jam in this regard, since they traded much of their pitching depth, including Michael King, to acquire Juan Soto. King was likely the most reliable and dominant arm out of New York’s bullpen, and during a late-season stint in the rotation, he shined even brighter. There is never a bad time to get Juan Soto, but there are some roster spots that now need to be addressed. Free agent reliever Robert Stephenson could be a good answer to one of them, and he has already been suggested as a possibility by Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic.
The hard-throwing righty will be turning 31 before the 2024 season gets under way, but he is also on the heels of a major breakout. Stephenson was a first-round prep pick by the Reds in 2011, and pitched for them from 2016-20, most of which was unremarkable. He had a 3.63 FIP in 2019 over 64.2 innings, which is solid but not much to write home about as a reliever. He was traded to the Rockies for the 2021 season and pitched around that same level. Stephenson had a rough start to the ‘22 campaign before being DFA’d and picked up by the Pirates, where he found success in a brief stint to close out the year.
This brings us to 2023, where Stephenson remained in Pittsburgh to start things off. But after 14 innings of a 5.14 ERA, the Buccos deemed it time to move on and traded him to Tampa Bay. In classic Rays fashion, he pretty much immediately became an impact arm out of the bullpen. Across 38.1 innings, Stephenson crafted a 2.35 ERA and 2.45 FIP, highlighted by a whopping 42.9-percent strikeout rate, significantly higher than his previous career-best of 30.9. In those 38.1 innings, the righty struck out out 60 opposing batters while walking just eight in what was a true breakout.
The deciding factor in this major improvement was Stephenson’s acceptance of the cutter. He was mostly a fastball/slider guy up until his arrival in St. Pete, but the Rays got him to add some serious cut to the ball, and it worked like a charm.
The cutter’s representation on this chart is just a microscopic red dot in 2023, because Stephenson had never thrown the pitch before in his career. You wouldn’t guess it though, as he worked wonders with his new toy.
After Stephenson got to the Sunshine State, he threw the pitch over 60 percent of the time. He allowed a .101 batting average and paltry .151 wOBA with the cutter, throwing it 316 times and yielding just eight hits. He maintained an eye-popping 59.9-percent whiff rate with the pitch, thanks in part to his effective use on top of its inherent difficulty.
Stephenson does a nice job consistently keeping the cutter down-and-away to righties, while keeping his fastball (which averages 96.8 mph) up in the zone. It’s a combo that has clearly flipped a switch in his career, and it came at a convenient time.
If Stephenson is able to maintain something close to this level of success, of course he would be a valuable addition to any bullpen in baseball. The Yankees, who have been fond of adding the cutter to pitchers’ repertoires of, would be happy to have them. With the loss of a few valuable pitchers (headlined by King), his hypothetical addition would be an even more welcome one. For better or for worse, much of the hope would be riding on less than 40 (albeit very good) innings of work. So, Stephenson likely won’t fetch top-shelf reliever money at 31 years old, but that could work to the Yankees advantage: fairly low-risk, with the high reward already having been on display.
FanGraphs’ crowdsourced projections have him somewhere in the realm of two years and $10 million, with MLB Trade Rumors predicting a much more ambitious four years and $36 million. Price tag aside, the upside with Stephenson is tantalizing, and given the Yankees’ current standing, he could be worth a real look.