GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Robert Stephenson came into camp in the same position he’s been in the last three years: No. 1 on the Reds' prospects list.
Baseball America put Stephenson atop the list largely based on his high ceiling in the past. That comes from the potential Stephenson showed since the Reds made him their No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft.
But this year, given the Reds are rebuilding and Stephenson’s development, he’s a candidate to make the team.
“I’m expecting for him to really push hard to make the ballclub,” Reds manager Bryan Price said. “He’s much more mature from a baseball perspective.”
Stephenson looks at it the same way.
“I definitely feel like I’m going to get a fair shot at making the team this year,” Stephenson said. “Whether I end up making it or not, I’m going to take full advantage of that opportunity and go out there and make the decision as hard on them as a possible.”
Based purely on his numbers last year — he went 8-11 with a 3.83 ERA in stops at Double-A Pensacola and Triple-A Louisville — Stephenson is probably not ready. But his stuff is good enough that he held opponents to a .218 average and struck out 140 in 134 innings.
The problem? He walked 70.
Stephenson, the 23-year-old right-hander, looked dominant in the first live batting practice sessions. He thinks an accidental adjustment will help him cut down on those walks.
“I switched to other side of the rubber in a bullpen I was throwing,” Stephenson said. “There was a hole in the middle of mound, so I kind of of had to. I felt really comfortable over there. I was on the third-base side before. Now, I’m on the first-base side. It feels like it’s a lot easier to hit both sides of the plate consistently.”
Stephenson showed how good he could be right after his call-up to Triple-A last year. He was 4-0 with a 2.25 ERA after six starts — the last three of which he went 20 innings and allowed only one run, while striking 20 and walking none.
But then his control left him over the next three starts. He ended up 4-4 with a 4.05 ERA in his stint at Triple-A.
“There were times I definitely was happy with last year,” he said. “There was still a lot of work left to be done. But I feel like I took a step forward last year. It was a good chance to get my feet wet in Triple-A. I started off well there. Obviously, the walks were still up. But I think I was more consistent in being able to hit the strike zone. It was more spurts where I could get more control together.
“I think this year, if I can recognize where my mechanics are going bad quicker and be able to make adjustments quicker, I’ll have more success and be ready for the big-league level.”
The new Reds pitching coach, Mark Riggins, was the minor league coordinator during most of Stephenson’s time as professional.
“He knows me pretty well,” Stephenson said. “He’s made some adjustments that have really helped me. It will be good having him going forward — a guy who knows me well and can help me out when he sees something going wrong.”
What the Reds do with Stephenson is one of the big decisions of camp. He has to hold up his end and pitch well, of course.
“A lot will be dictated in the games,” Price said. “He didn’t pitch in the games last year. We shut down his throwing program. The year before, he pitched in one or two games. He was like a lot young guys. He threw some high fastballs. The emphasis with Robert is going to be commanding the bottom of the strike zone with the three-pitch mix.”
“I anticipate with the maturity — instead of coming out of A ball or a little bit of Double-A, this kid has pitched through Triple-A — he has a better feel of how to find his outs.”
There are a lot of theories on how to best develop young pitchers. With Johnny Cueto, the Reds put him in the big leagues at a similar place in his development as Stephenson. Cueto took his lumps, but it worked out.
Homer Bailey was arguably rushed to the bigs as well; he struggled but survived.
“Barely,” he said. “That all depends on the player. Think of all the guys who came up who were either really good at first or struggled and you never hear from them again. It’s more of a mental thing. Can you take it? Can you take getting beat around and then start figuring things out? Or you going to crawl in a hole and hide?”
“For me, I would say bring your best guys — whoever you think your best guys are,” he said.
Stephenson will have a chance to prove he’s one of the best.
John Fay is freelance sports columnist. This column represents his opinion.