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Deep Impact: Robert Stephenson

Leading up to Tuesday’s trade deadline each of Major League Baseball’s teams had to decide if they were buyers or sellers. At some point fantasy owners will need to make the same determination and while it’s lovely to be in the money, it’s important to move your assets quickly if you’re not. If you’re selling or have a minor league roster spot open, target Cincinnati’s Robert Stephenson before the rest of your league catches on.

Stephenson joins Californian starters Aaron Sanchez, Taijuan Walker and Joe Ross as one of several high upside pitchers from the area who slipped in the draft in recent years. Now, teams who past over these highly regarded arms are kicking themselves now; their stocks have boomed and each ranks highly on the Bullpen Banter Mid-Season Top 100 and similar lists. Due to his promotion I was able to catch the rising star’s debut with the Dayton Dragons on Minor League Baseball TV and I couldn’t have been more impressed with his development.

This is how I summed up the first inning earlier this week when discussing some other prospects on the rise:

“In his first start at Dayton he threw a first pitch strike to Darnell Sweeney. 96 MPH at the knees. Sweeney looks down, nods his head a few times and undoubtedly thinks, “[expletive].” Pitch two is a 97 MPH fastball away. Sweeney fouls it off. At this point he’s probably thinking, “okay, maybe I can do this.” Then comes the hammer. A looping 12-6 78MPH curveball and Sweeney is toast. “That’s unfair,” exclaims the announcer. Indeed. Indeed it is. The next two hitters went down on strikes too…”

Stephenson is listed at 6’2″ 190 lbs and his body has matured well since being drafted 27th overall in the 2011 Rule 4 draft. To my eye it looks like he may have grown since last then too. An athletic 19-year-old, Stephenson repeats his delivery well and finds a consistent release point. He gets the most out of his long arms by getting on top of the ball creating good downward movement and armside run on his fastball. While he didn’t get many groundballs in his debut, he did a solid job of pounding the bottom of the strike-zone. The command trails greatly behind his control, but when one’s sitting 94 to 98 MPH and touching 101 with movement, throwing strikes is more than enough against Low-A competition.

It’s easy to focus on Stephenson’s fastball, but his curveball is equally devastating. Think catcher Pratt Maynard agrees?

Hopefully you can watch that short clip, but if you can’t, that’s a knee buckling high-70s hammer from the Dayton star. Let’s recap. Stephenson is 19 years old with two potential plus pitches. If gets gains faith in third pitch, his change-up, his upside becomes scary in a hurry.

Friend and RedsMinorLeagues.com owner Doug Gray charted the game and counted 5 change ups, each thrown for a strike. My impression of the pitch from the small sample was it had good tumbling action and sink but featured minimal fade and had the potential to be an above average or better pitch. He’ll need to deploy the pitch more as a third pitch is key for almost all starting pitchers’ development. While a curveball generally does not have the same platoon split as a slider, a change-up is a near necessary weapon against left-handed hitters.

Stephenson is one of the most electric arms in the minor leagues. Featuring two pitches that could be plus and a third that flashes great potential, it’s easy to see why Stephenson has struck out 30% of the batters he has faced in 35.2 innings. It’s impossible to know how much he threw in instructional ball so his first full season assignment next season will be important to watch. It’s not uncommon that one losses velocity as his career progresses, so that will be need to be to monitored too.  If his change-up develops and his control improves, he is one of a dozen pitchers in the minors where the sky is the limit.

Prospect Video of the Week: Doug Gray was able to make it to Stephenson’s start Wednesday (after this piece was written), check out the video he shot: