The Stripers have a new arm in its starting rotation, and his name is Jackson Stephens, who the Braves signed to a minor league deal back in January. The right-handed Stephens is slated to start Gwinnett’s game tonight versus Memphis, the third contest of a six-game series to begin the 2022 minor league season.
If you hadn’t heard of Stephens, don’t feel bad. Neither had I. From what I can tell, the 27-year-old evidently didn’t live up to his expectations during his time in the Reds organization, the team that drafted him 562nd overall (18th round) back in 2012. Stephens wasn’t really considered a prospect as a draftee, as his name was never featured in any of FanGraphs prospect lists for Cincinnati. However, with decent fastball velo and a rather solid four-pitch repetoire, there perhaps was a path for him to potentially become a regular big league arm during his Reds days.
Other than a 25-inning cup of coffee back in 2017 (featuring four starts and three relief appearances), Stephens’ only real contributions at the big league level came in 2018, solely as a low-leverage-type reliever for the Reds, as he came out of the bullpen during mostly blowouts or games in which Cincy found itself in extra-innings and needed to save its other arms. (if you weren’t aware, the ’18 campaign was one of the Reds worst seasons in franchise history, as the team finished with just 67 wins.) Stephens actually didn’t pitch too bad during that season. His batted-ball metrics remained rather stable (6.8 Barrel% / 29.5 Hard%), although even so, his run-prevention was far from ideal (4.93 ERA / 5.22 FIP). In 29 games – spanning 38 1/3 innings – Stephens struck out 33 and walked 15 batters (7.7 K/9, 3.5 BB/9). His seven homers allowed was a little high as well.
You may be able to squint to find some things to like about Stephens’ big league work three years ago, but last season the Alabama native struggled. In 84 innings with Cincy’s Triple-A club, he did well to only allow six home runs, but once again, the run prevention overall wasn’t there, as Stephens posted a 5.14 ERA / 4.11 FIP – not what you’d like to see from a guy trying to make it back to the majors, hence his spot on the Gwinnett roster to start 2022.
According to Stephens’ pitching profile over at Baseball Savant, he has a rather versatile pitch mix, in that he likes to throw all four offerings pretty often in his outings (as much as you can assume given how little of a sample-size he has in the majors). A four-seam fastball (thrown 43.1% of the time), a sinker (23.3%), slider (15.3%) and curveball (15.3%) are all on the table for Stephens, and he also has a changeup (3.1%) he’ll mix in every now and then. In the big leagues, it was his curve that by far had the most success, holding opposing batters to just a .192 AVG in ’18. However, for a four-seam, Stephens 94-95 MPH fastball also induces a pretty decent rate of whiffs (24.5 Whiff%), not to mention velocity, despite being an offering opponents hit .281 against several seasons ago. Regardless, it’s easy to see why he’s a starter for the Stripers. You don’t usually contain a guy with five pitches in the bullpen. But Stephens will still need to pitch consistently well to remain on the staff.
All in all, Stephens probably isn’t going to garner much excitement this season. Honestly I don’t see any path for him possibly making starts in Atlanta in 2022, and with him apparently stretched out as a starter in Gwinnett, the Braves obviously don’t see him as a bullpen depth piece right now either (although it’s much easier to go from starter to reliever than the other way around).
We’ll see what Stephens has tonight. Hopefully he can post some solid numbers in the minors this season.