The O’s saw plenty of Stephenson when he pitched for the Rays last season, a 38 1/3-inning stint that set a new ceiling on the former first-rounder’s potential. While Stephenson had posted good results over full seasons (with the Reds in 2019 and with the Rockies in 2021) and for the last month of the 2022 season after the Pirates claimed him away from Colorado, the right-hander had simply been too inconsistent to be a truly reliable bullpen arm. Stephenson had a 5.14 ERA in 14 innings with Pittsburgh last season before the Rays acquired him in a June trade, and that’s when the turnaround happened.
Stephenson proceeded to post a 2.35 ERA, 42.9% strikeout rate, and 5.7% walk rate over his 38 1/3 frames for Tampa, suddenly breaking out as one of the best relievers in baseball. A tiny .194 BABIP undoubtedly contributed to that success, yet the rest of Stephenson’s metrics were so impressive that batted-ball luck alone couldn’t account for his success. Replacing his slider with a cutter as his secondary pitch worked wonders for Stephenson, as his cutter became one of the more overpowering pitches in all of baseball.
While 38 1/3 innings isn’t a huge sample size by any stretch, Stephenson’s run in Tampa Bay was so dominant that it has made him one of the most sought-after names on the relief market as he enters his age-31 season. Morosi previously reported that the Cubs, Angels, and Dodgers all had interest in the righty’s services, and the Orioles now become the fourth team linked to the Stephenson market.
MLBTR ranked Stephenson 27th on our list of the winter’s top 50 free agents, projecting a four-year, $36MM contract. Darragh McDonald also picked the Orioles as Stephenson’s landing spot, despite the fact that the O’s have yet to sign any player to even a multi-year contract during Mike Elias’ tenure as general manager. While nobody expects the Orioles to suddenly go wild with spending this winter, the team’s 101-win 2023 season shows that Baltimore is firmly capable of contending for a championship, and some level of payroll increase is likely necessary to add what might be only a couple of final pieces to the team’s impressive talent core.
The Orioles have showed signs that they’re at least considering some higher-level expenditures. Baltimore reportedly checked in on Aaron Nola before he re-signed with the Phillies, and their ventures into the relief market have included links to Josh Hader, Jordan Hicks, Aroldis Chapman, and Craig Kimbrel.
Stephenson perhaps joins Hicks as something of a middle ground between the nine-figure, multi-year deal it will likely take to land Hader and the one-year deals Kimbrel or Chapman are likely to sign. Signing Stephenson, Hicks, or Hader would give the O’s a longer-term relief arm even after Felix Bautista returns from Tommy John surgery, and putting any of those relievers with Bautista and Yennier Cano in 2025 and beyond makes for a very promising bullpen situation.