Free agent right-hander Robert Stephenson continues to receive plenty of attention, with Jon Morosi of MLB.com listing the Mets, Dodgers and Phillies as clubs with interest in him. The Dodgers have previously been connected to the righty, as have the Rangers, Yankees, Astros, Angels, Cubs, Red Sox and Orioles, though some of those clubs have subsequently pivoted to other bullpen moves.
Though Stephenson might not be a household name, the popularity is understandable since Stephenson was one of the best relievers in the game during the second half of 2023. The Rays acquired him from the Pirates in early June and he went on to make 42 appearances for Tampa with a 2.35 earned run average. He only walked 5.7% of the batters he faced in that time while punching out 42.9% of them.
From the start of June to the end of the season, only Félix Bautista, Aroldis Chapman and Pete Fairbanks had higher strikeout rates among pitchers with at least 20 innings pitched. But all three of them had higher walk rates, meaning Stephenson’s strikeout-to-walk ratio was higher than those three. At the start of the offseason, MLBTR put Stephenson in the #27 slot on the annual Top 50 Free Agents post with a prediction of a four-year, $36MM contract.
That’s a far cry from the six years and $110MM predicted for Josh Hader, which is a reflection of the differences in their track record. Hader has years of dominant relief work on his résumé while a team signing Stephenson would be banking on a few good months. But he has shown glimpses of his potential in the past, having been a first-round pick of the Reds in 2011 and a top 100 prospect as he worked his way up the minor league ladder.
He began his major league career as a starter and struggled, but a move to the bullpen seemed to work for him. He had a 3.76 ERA with the Reds in 2019, had a rough time in the shortened 2020 season, then rebounded with a 3.13 ERA for the Rockies in 2021. He struggled early in 2022 but finished strong after a claim by the Pirates. He started 2023 with some arm discomfort and struggled out of the gate, before getting traded to the Rays and having the aforementioned breakout.
That inconsistency would appear to make him more of a risk than Hader, but that will also make him more affordable and perhaps give some more upside to whoever eventually gets him to put pen to paper. If he signs for a guarantee roughly a third of what Hader gets and then can maintain his dominance going forward, it would be a clear bargain. But another swoon in his performance would obviously push things the other way.
If the Mets were to be the club to take the plunge, it would be at least a bit of a surprise. President of baseball operations David Stearns did just say last week that he expected more work to be done on the bullpen, and owner Steve Cohen has shown that he isn’t afraid to throw money around when he wants to get a deal done. But on the other hand, the club has been shifting gears this winter, opting for short-term and depth moves as they do a sort of retool.
The only multi-year deal they’ve given out so far this winter was a two-year pact for Sean Manaea, with that deal having an opt-out halfway through. The Mets have also given one-year deals to Luis Severino Harrison Bader, Joey Wendle, Jorge López, Austin Adams and Michael Tonkin. It seems the plan is to limit long-term commitments as they assess some internal players and decide how to proceed with more aggression next winter.
Beyond their own habits this offseason, there’s the competitive balance tax to consider. Roster Resource pegs the club’s CBT number at $318MM right now, well beyond the top tier of the tax, which is $297MM. As a third-time payor at that level, all further spending comes with a 110% tax rate, meaning they would have to pay out more than double the amount Stephenson would make. Combining that with their modest operating strategy in recent months, they may not end up with Stephenson on the roster, but they could make it happen if they decided they really wanted to.
As for the Phillies, they’ve had a relatively quiet winter, apart from re-signing Aaron Nola. The 2024 bullpen looks quite similar to the 2023 version, though Craig Kimbrel reached free agency and signed with the Orioles. That relief corps posted a collective 3.58 ERA last year, the seventh-best mark in the league. But relievers are known to be a fungible bunch and the club already has a strong lineup and rotation, leaving the bullpen as an obvious target area for the remainder of the offseason.
José Alvarado, Jeff Hoffman, Seranthony Domínguez, Gregory Soto and Matt Strahm all had strong results last year, to varying degrees, and will be back this year. Orion Kerkering had an exciting season, blasting through four minor league levels and then having an enticing MLB debut. Dylan Covey had some interesting results in a low-strikeout, high-grounder fashion while Andrew Bellatti took a step back from a strong 2022 season.
It’s a strong group overall but any club could benefit from adding an elite reliever and bumping everyone down a peg on the chart. The Phillies currently have a CBT number of $252MM, per Roster Resource, which puts them over the $237MM base and nearing the $257MM second line. They finished last year between the second and third line and perhaps would be comfortable ending up in that range again. Crossing the $277MM third line would involve the club’s top pick in the 2025 draft being moved back 10 places, in addition to a higher tax rate. Perhaps the club would view that as a sort of barrier, but they have plenty of room to add a reliever on a significant contract even if that is a line they don’t want to cross.