When it comes to really grading any signing in Major League Baseball, you have to compare the fit with the team, what else there was out in the free agency market that was equivalent to this player’s abilities, and the contract compared to the overall market.
Before any of that, does the signing of Robert Stephenson move the needle towards a playoff run? Anyone objective would say no. You need multiple signings to move that scale. However, is it moving in the right direction? I would say, absolutely!
The fit with the team is obviously good. He’s an eight-year professional. He’s been on many rebuilding teams in the Cincinnati Reds, Colorado Rockies, and Pittsburgh Pirates. However, when a playoff push came along with the Tampa Bay Rays last season, he dominated. In 38 1/3 innings, he averaged better than three strikeouts for every one hit allowed. Not just outs, strikeouts! The Los Angeles Angels did not have anyone close to that in any part of their bullpen last year. Also, remember that the Rays play in the AL East which has stadiums that are hitter havens, especially Tropicana Field.
LA Angels land one of the best relievers available in Robert Stephenson
The second criteria, he was the most sought out for reliever this offseason for a couple reasons. One, he’s an 8th inning guy since he has been a reliever. Some call that the hardest inning to pitch because it is not as rewarding as the closer role, and it is his job not to screw up the game so their closer can close the game out. Scott Shields and Francisco Rodriguez are the most well-known Angels to take on this role. K-Rod was the MVP of the Angels bullpen in their 2002 World Series Championship in his rookie season. Scott Shields wasn’t as dominant as Rodriguez when he got the setup gig, but as a fan, you knew he would more likely than not keep the game safe for K-Rod to close it out.
The 8th inning role is a role where a pitcher cares more about winning than accolades. If you get the job done, you are expected to have done that. If you blow the lead in the 8th inning, you usually get the loss more times than not at the end of the game. Craig Kimbrel is really the only free agent in this class that has done well as the 8th inning guy.
He’s five years older than Stephenson and he only got a one-year deal with Baltimore, but at a higher cost at $13 million. However, he has closer experience which is why the Baltimore Orioles signed him for one year to fill in for Felix Bautista who will be out for the 2024 season. Stephenson was one of one for what he does in this free agency cycle.
For his numbers last year, the three-year deal worth $33 million according to Sam Blum of The Athletic (subscripton required) looks like a bargain. However, there is a reason why not many relievers, besides closers, get multi-year deals. Perry Minasian is probably looking at his contract in two to three parts. The first year, Stephenson can be that calming presence in a very young bullpen with names like Ben Joyce and Sam Bachman who looked promising last year when healthy. He is also an option if Carlos Estevez takes a step back during the season.
The Angels wouldn’t have to force Ben Joyce, who does throw absolute gas in baseball terms, to pitch in high leverage situations in the 9th inning with less than a year under his belt in the majors. They can instead turn to the experienced Stephenson.
The Angels know they are in the hardest division in the American League, and possibly, all of Major League Baseball with multiple World Series trophies lining the halls of their rivals’ stadiums. The second and third years could be major adjustments in leadership in the front office and possibly, ownership. Having that one reliever locked in gives you a little more confidence in the flux years and or possible postseason run years.
Stephenson is known for his revamped cutter. It has one of the highest whiff rates in the league at nearly 60% since June of last year. That is higher than any pitch from Blake Snell who won the CY Young Award to put it in perspective. Yordan Alvarez, Kyle Tucker, Corey Seager, and Nathaniel Lowe are all in the AL West. The cutter could be the equalizer when it comes to getting elite hitters out in big moments.
Overall grade: B