HomeTrending MLB NewsAngels land top remaining reliever on free-agent market

Angels land top remaining reliever on free-agent market

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The Angels are in agreement with reliever Robert Stephenson on a three-year deal with an option for 2027, as first reported by @Jolly_Olive. Stephenson, a client of Apex Baseball, is guaranteed $33M, reports Sam Blum of the Athletic. The deal is pending a physical. Los Angeles has a full 40-man roster, so they’ll need to make a corresponding move once the contract is finalized.

Stephenson, 31 next month, was the top remaining free-agent reliever once Josh Hader came off the board. Within a couple hours of Hader agreeing to a five-year, $95M pact with the Astros, Stephenson decided to join him in the AL West.

A three-year guarantee for Stephenson would have seemed outlandish six months ago. Until last summer, he looked like a volatile middle-innings arm. A former first-round pick and highly-regarded prospect with the Reds, Stephenson struggled early in his career as a starter. He moved to relief full-time in 2019 and had an up-and-down trajectory.

The 6-foot-3 righty turned in a sub-4.00 ERA in 2019 and 2021 before a rough 2022 campaign. He split the year between the Rockies and Pirates, allowing a 5.43 ERA through 58 innings. Stephenson opened last season with 14 innings of nine-run ball in Pittsburgh.

An early June trade sending him to the Rays for infielder Alika Williams didn’t result in a ton of fanfare. It wound up being one of the more adept rental acquisitions of the summer, though, one that completely changed his fortunes in free agency.

Stephenson was arguably the most dominant pitcher in the majors for the season’s final four months. During his time in Tampa Bay, he worked to a 2.35 ERA across 38 1/3 innings. He punched out a laughable 42.9% of hitters while walking fewer than 6% of batters faced. Among relievers with 30+ innings after June 1, only Félix Bautista, Aroldis Chapman and Pete Fairbanks punched hitters out at a higher rate.

Even that doesn’t capture how overpowering he was on a pitch-for-pitch basis. Opponents whiffed more often than they made contact. Hitters put the bat on the ball on 49.3% of their swings against Stephenson in Tampa Bay. That wasn’t simply the best mark in MLB. It was almost 10 percentage points lower than anyone else over that stretch. Chapman, against whom batters made contact on 59% of their swings, was second.

It’s not hard to pinpoint a reason for that excellence. Before he went to Tampa Bay, he paired a near-97 MPH four-seam fastball with a mid-80s slider. With the Rays, he leaned mostly on an upper-80s breaking ball that Statcast classifies as a cutter. Opponents couldn’t do anything with that pitch. They swung through it nearly three-fifths of the time and hit .101 in 79 at-bats. By the season’s final month, he was using the pitch at a near-75% clip.

Whether Stephenson adopted the cutter from scratch or just found a way to add a couple of ticks of velocity to his former slider isn’t clear. In any event, it’s a pitch he’ll surely lean on frequently in Orange County. The Angels can’t expect him to maintain quite the level he showed in Tampa Bay — that’d be a tough ask for anyone — but they’re surely anticipating him stepping in as a quality high-leverage arm.

That’s not without risk. Stellar as Stephenson’s finish was, his time in Tampa Bay comprised fewer than 40 innings. From his 2019 bullpen transfer through his stint in Pittsburgh, he tallied a 4.53 ERA in 192 2/3 frames between three teams. Some of that can be attributed to playing in hitter-friendly home venues in Cincinnati and Colorado, but he clearly wouldn’t have been a candidate for a three-year pact had he not finished the way he did. His 26.9% strikeout rate over those four-plus seasons was a solid but hardly elite number.

It’s the first significant acquisition of the offseason for the Halos. While Stephenson is their fourth bullpen pickup overall, the other three signings were modest one-year investments. Luis García landed a $4.75M deal, while Adam Cimber inked a $1.65M pact after being non-tendered by Toronto. Adam Kolarek, who signed for $900K, was already outrighted off the 40-man roster.

Stephenson will work in the late innings. He doesn’t have any closing experience, so the Halos could elect to leave last year’s key bullpen pickup, Carlos Estévez, in the ninth inning. The pair of righties should take the bulk of the most important work late in games. García and Cimber will occupy middle relief roles, while Ben Joyce and José Soriano could hold setup jobs.

It’s a high-octane group built around some of the hardest throwers in the sport. Joyce averaged nearly 101 MPH on his heater and famously was clocked as high as 105 MPH in college. Estévez and García sit north of 97 MPH on average. Soriano and Stephenson have upper 90s velocity in their back pocket as well, even if both lean more frequently on their breaking stuff.

New manager Ron Washington should appreciate the stable of power arsenals at his disposal, although the Halos likely need to add another left-hander to the mix. That could put the finishing touch on the bullpen, yet there’s still plenty of work for GM Perry Minasian and his front office.

The Halos haven’t made any acquisitions on the offensive side to compensate for Shohei Ohtani’s departure. That’s also true in the rotation. They’ve looked for ways to add a top-end starter. In addition to scouring the trade market, the Halos have reportedly shown interest in defending NL Cy Young winner Blake Snell.

There should still be plenty of payroll room at their disposal. Roster Resource projected the 2024 player payroll around $153M before the Stephenson signing. Evenly distributing his salaries would push that around $164M. The Halos opened last season with a payroll at roughly $212M, as calculated by Cot’s Baseball Contracts. They’ll still be almost $50M shy of that mark. They’re also nowhere near next year’s $237M base luxury tax threshold. Stephenson’s $11M average annual value will push the Angels’ projected CBT number to roughly $179M.

The contract comes in just below MLBTR’s prediction of four years and $36M. It’s in line with the going rate for high-leverage relievers with some inconsistency in their career track record, as shown on MLBTR’s Contract Tracker. Stephenson’s deal generally aligns with those signed by Taylor Rogers (three years, $33M), Rafael Montero (three years, $34.5M), Joe Jiménez (three years, $26.5M), former Angel Reynaldo López (three years, $30M) and Jordan Hicks (four years, $44M) over the last two offseasons.

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