“People are always ruining things for you.” — The Catcher in the Rye
On June 8, 2007, Homer Bailey made his major league debut for a 24-37 Reds team that was 10.5 games out of first place. Bailey, the seventh overall pick in the 2004 draft and the Reds’ top prospect, threw his first Reds pitches before a Friday evening crowd of 38,696 fans at Great American Ball Park. The game was also a rivalry matchup, as the Reds were pitted against the Cleveland Indians, a team that would come within one win of a World Series appearance.
Today, on Thursday, April 7, 2016, Robert Stephenson will make his major league debut for a Reds team that is destined to drop 90 games for the second consecutive season. Stephenson, the 27th pick in the 2011 draft and the Reds’ top prospect, will throw his first Reds pitches before what’s likely to be a sparse afternoon crowd at Great American Ball Park against a Phillies outfit that could be one of the few clubs to finish with a worse record than the Reds in 2016.
The debuts are both convergent and divergent at the same time: as another highly-touted former high school phenom with a thunderbolt of a right arm premieres for Cincinnati, the Reds have struck a different tone this time around. The christening of Stephenson is as much about rectifying the sins of Bailey’s big league introduction as anything else.
An argument can be made that Bailey was ready to debut in June 2007. The Texas native had confounded Double-A hitters in the finals months of the 2006 season, striking out 77 in 68 innings and recording a 1.59 ERA. Bumped up to Triple-A to begin 2007, Bailey notched 51 strikeouts and an ERA of 2.31 in 58.1 innings and nine starts.
Against the Indians, Bailey labored through five innings, requiring 114 pitches to get 15 outs and allowing two runs on five hits. The 21-year-old also walked four and struck out three. Turns out, Bailey wasn’t ready—not even close. Bailey started eight more games for the Reds in 2007, posting a 5.76 ERA in 45.1 innings, and bounced between Triple-A and the big leagues over the next two seasons. Bailey finally achieved a long-awaited breakthrough major league campaign in 2012, pitching 208 innings and logging an ERA of 3.68.
In retrospect, expectations were completely farfetched for Bailey to begin with. Bailey was the youngest hurler to debut for the Reds in almost 34 years, and was also the first Reds pitcher to win his debut in nearly 14 years. Hell, Bailey’s debut was my moon landing—I remember exactly where I was when Bailey first toed the rubber: at a friend’s graduation party, sneaking in text updates on my flip phone between awkward dancing and bites of catered food.
Bailey breaking through mattered because as those ghastly statistics indicate, the Reds were completely inept for a very long time when it came to developing homegrown starting pitching. More than anything else, Bailey—who debuted before Jay Bruce, Joey Votto, and Johnny Cueto, the Reds’ other top four prospects in 2007—represented hope for a franchise and a fanbase that had only tasted two winning seasons since its last postseason appearance in 1995.
Again, the stark contrast between the debuts of Bailey and Stephenson is no accident. The Reds have done their part to ensure this through a number of means:
*Stephenson struck out 140 batters in 136.1 innings at Double-A Pensacola in 2014, but recorded a 4.75 ERA and nearly five walks per nine innings. Unconvinced of his progress, the Reds sent Stephenson back to Pensacola to begin the 2015 campaign, where he made 14 starts before being promoted to Triple-A Louisville. Stephenson tallied a 4.04 ERA in 11 starts at Louisville.
*Stephenson would not be making this start if A) Triple-A starter Tim Melville had made the 40-man roster and B) if the Reds’ starting pitching had not morphed into a MASH unit, with Bailey (recovering from Tommy John surgery), Anthony DeSclafani (oblique), John Lamb (back), Michael Lorenzen (elbow), and Jon Moscot (intercostal) on the shelf and unable to take the mound on Thursday.
*The Reds have made it clear to Stephenson (and everyone else) that barring something unforeseen—like, you know, another injury (knock on wood)—he will hit the interstate and head south to Louisville post-game. Stephenson and the Reds are on the same page.
“This is probably a one-start situation for Robert,” Reds manager Bryan Price told reporters on Monday. “He knows that. It’s a great opportunity for him to get his feet wet in this environment.”
“I think it’s a good opportunity to go out there and get my feet wet and a little bit of experience,” Stephenson said on Monday. “That way when I come back for a more permanent time, it’s not new to me. It takes the weight off my shoulders a little bit.”
Spring training statistics are always best consumed with a dose of cynicism, but Stephenson’s performance in Arizona (9.58 ERA in 10.1 innings) seemed to confirm that the 23-year-old requires additional minor league seasoning.
As an organization, allowing Stephenson to toil at Triple-A a little while longer makes complete financial sense. For one, the Reds are going nowhere in 2016, their self-admitted rebuilding/rebooting/refurbishing season. Two, if Stephenson stays in the minors for at least 21 days, the Reds postpone Stephenson’s arbitration and free agency clock for another year, meaning Cincinnati ensures that it will control Stephenson’s rights through the 2022 season. Three, if the Reds store Stephenson in Triple-A through (approximately) early June, they will also impede Stephenson from acquiring ‘Super Two’ status, which prevents Stephenson from being arbitration-eligible (and therefore, more expensive) for four seasons instead of three.
(It’s interesting just how far even casual baseball fandom has come. As I was driving downtown with my friend Blake—a devoted but an easygoing follower of the club—on Monday morning, I informed him that the Reds had officially announced Stephenson’s start. Blake’s response included a question about service time.)
In fact, the debate surrounding Stephenson’s debut focuses on service time and whether Stephenson actually deserves the start. Part of that makes me feel melancholy; it seems as if the real and tangible joy of a celebrated young player making a long-awaited arrival in Cincinnati is being muted by a numbers debate. On the other hand, I believe most educated fans know that as long as Stephenson takes care of business, he’ll be with the big club before long.
And as fate would have it, even the roster move the Reds made Monday tied this all up with a nice, symbolic bow: To make room for Stephenson on the 25-man roster, the Reds placed Bailey on the disabled list.