In his second professional season, Stephenson rose from low Class A Dayton to Class A Advanced Bakersfield and finished 2013 at Double-A Pensacola. This week, MLBPipeline.com ranked him as the No. 7 right-handed pitching prospect in all of baseball.
MLBPipeline.com's 2014 Top 100 Prospects list will be unveiled Jan. 23 on MLB.com, as well as on a one-hour show on MLB Network, airing at 10 p.m. ET. Leading up to that, MLBPipeline.com is breaking down baseball's top 10 prospects at each position.
Stephenson, also ranked as the No. 2 prospect in the Reds organization in 2013, was 7-7 with a 2.99 ERA over 22 starts combined at his three different teams last season. Over his 114 1/3 innings, he gave up 92 hits and 35 walks while striking out 136 batters.
"One of the big things Robert did this year was he discovered what works for him," Reds player development director Jeff Graupe said. "He came to us as a high school kid who was very talented but was almost trying to do too much at times. He added a few extra pitches he probably didn't need. Going away from that and using his main three pitches and attacking hitters early in counts, I think, was a big step forward."
Upon becoming the 27th overall Draft pick in the first round in 2011 out of Alhambra High School in California, Stephenson brought a variety of different pitches like a split-fingered fastball. The Reds instructed him to rely on his fastball.
"With younger guys, we want to establish fastball command," Graupe said. "With the power he brings with his four-seam, it was plenty enough to be successful for him."
This season, according to Graupe, Stephenson had fastball velocity mainly in the 93-98 mph range. He sometimes touched 99 and 100 mph. He's also developed his changeup as well.
"He learned what works for him and what he needs to do to keep putting hitters away on a consistent basis," Graupe said.
It's expected that Stephenson will begin the 2014 season back at Pensacola, where he posted an 0-2 record and 4.86 ERA in his four starts to end last season. It would not be unrealistic to think he could reach the Majors before the end of the season if the puzzle pieces fell into place correctly.
However, the Reds have added rotation insurance at the Triple-A level to prevent Stephenson from being needed in emergencies. The club recently signed veteran starters Chien-Ming Wang and Jeff Francis to Minor League deals and traded for young lefty David Holmberg from the D-backs in December.
Looking ahead to 2015, the Reds could be poised to lose Homer Bailey to free agency. Ace Johnny Cueto has an option for that season and Mat Latos could become a free agent before 2016.
Graupe felt that Stephenson's continued development would let the club know when he is big league ready. There could be more arms in the pipeline as well.
"Some of the guys that Robert has been in rotations with, I think it will be a good competition of starting pitchers pushing towards our upper Minors," Graupe said.