This is a big year for Reds pitcher Robert Stephenson.
The team’s first-round pick (27th overall) in 2011 is out of options. He has to earn a spot on the team or be exposed to waivers.
The spring has been a painful one. Stephenson has not kicked the shoulder pain that kept him sidelined from Aug. 30 through the end of the 2018 season.
“My arm feels great,” Stephenson said. “The pain was just in the front of my shoulder — pretty much the same thing I had at the end of last season.”
Stephenson spent most of the last three seasons at Triple-A Louisville, traveling up and down I-71 several times a season since 2016.
The 26-year old drafted out of Alhambra High School in Martinez, Calif., was on the Reds Opening Day roster in 2016 when he was recalled when Homer Bailey was placed on the disabled list. He was the winning pitcher on April 7 in his debut against the Philadelphia Phillies.
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In 2017, Stephenson made the roster as a reliever. He made 13 relief appearances with the Reds before he was optioned to Louisville for six weeks. From July 22 on, Stephenson started 11 games and pitched once in relief.
Last year he spent most of the season in Louisville with current Reds’ coach, Delino DeShields as manager. Until Stephenson was recalled on Aug. 8, he was leading the organization with a 2.87 ERA. He led the International League with a .184 opponents batting average, was sixth in ERA, third with 11 wins, second with 135 strikeouts and fourth with 57 walks.
Stephenson finished with four appearances — three starts — for the Reds. He was 0-2 with a 9.48 ERA.
Once he rested his shoulder, Stephenson started working on a new fastball grip during the offseason.
“I had a regular ‘C’ grip that I was throwing my four-seam with,” Stephenson said. “Now I’m using a reverse ‘C’ that I feel like I can control it a little bit better. It seems to match up with my fingers better. I feel like I’m getting a little more ride out of the ball.”
Toward the end of the winter, Stephenson’s shoulder started bothering him again.
The Reds held him out for a couple weeks but since then he’s thrown a few bullpen sessions and a couple of live batting practices, including a bullpen on Tuesday.
“I’m starting to get back my feel for pitches,” said Stephenson, who was scheduled to pitch a B game Thursday vs. the Indians.
Sitting out has given Stephenson a chance to get acquainted with new pitching coach Derek Johnson and the new coaching staff as well as the three new starting pitchers the Reds brought to camp.
Stephenson is another pitcher the Reds talked about building up to three or four innings to pitch in a swing role. Stephenson’s main competition for that job is Sal Romano. The competition is more intense than it’s ever been for the former top prospect to stick in the Major Leagues. If not, he could be traded before the season starts. Right now, Stephenson is concentrating on showing the new staff what he can do.
“So far, I really like everybody. I love the new coaching staff,” Stephenson said. “I feel like we made some really good additions to the team. It is going to be a really exciting team to watch this year.”
The new coaching staff gives Stephenson a fresh approach that perhaps will help him reach the potential that was predicted for him as a top draft pick.
“Change can always bring something new and exciting,” Stephenson said.