Stephenson begins quest to make Reds' staff

Stephenson begins quest to make Reds' staff

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Robert Stephenson has navigated his way through two previous big league camps with the Reds, but neither had close to the stakes of this year's Spring Training for the pitching prospect.

"This is really the first year where he can really feel like he's got a shot to play in the big leagues," Reds manager Bryan Price said on Wednesday ahead of Stephenson's first spring start. "Realistically, he's got a great opportunity. He should pitch in the Majors in 2016 -- if he makes our club out of Spring Training or he comes in during the season, this definitely is a guy who should be a part of this team sometime this year."

Against the Indians on Wednesday, Stephenson threw two scoreless innings with one hit, one walk and two strikeouts. He threw 33 pitches, including 19 for strikes. In a 24-pitch first inning, the right-hander went to full counts on three of the four batters, but he settled in for the second inning and overcame a two-out triple by Robbie Grossman.

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"I think the first inning was just a little bit of first-game jitters," said Stephenson. "I'm glad to have that out of the way. The second inning, I settled down a little bit. I talked to [pitching coach Mark] Riggins in between innings about being able to get on top of the ball and keep my arm slot. I felt more comfortable in the second inning."

Ranked the No. 2 prospect in the organization and No. 35 overall by MLBPipeline.com, the 23-year-old Stephenson is vying for one of three open spots in the Reds' rotation. He has been groomed for this opportunity since he was Cincinnati's first-round pick (27th overall) in the 2011 Draft.

Stephenson came to camp last year as a non-roster player with an outside shot at cracking the rotation. But mild soreness in his right shoulder compelled the club to move cautiously, and Stephenson did not get into a game. A strained right forearm suffered in August wiped out any thoughts of a September callup at the end of last season.

In his first Spring Training, Stephenson was used out of the bullpen.

"It's also a lot different when you're coming in the eighth or ninth inning as a reliever, as opposed to coming out here and starting a game and competing for a spot," Stephenson said.

In between his minor injuries in 2015, Stephenson made progress. In 25 starts combined for Double-A Pensacola and Triple-A Louisville, he was 8-11 with a 3.83 ERA and led Reds Minor League arms with 140 strikeouts. Over his 134 innings, he allowed 104 hits and 70 walks for a 1.299 WHIP.

"Once I master the consistency, I think I will be ready," Stephenson said. "Whether I have to go to Triple-A to do that or figure it out here and have more consistency in Spring Training, I just want to be able to show my best stuff in Spring Training and put that in their hands."

Stephenson is joined in the rotation competition by Michael Lorenzen, Jon Moscot, Brandon Finnegan, Cody Reed, Jonathan Sanchez and Tim Melville. Reed, who followed Stephenson Wednesday, is also a Top 100 prospect. But unlike Stephenson, he is not on the 40-man roster.

Price did not rule out a relief role for Stephenson should he not make the rotation.

"He's a guy who pitched in Triple-A. He's really starting to check a lot of boxes right now for what we like to see when it comes to readiness for our young players," Price said. "I'm looking forward to each and every time he gets on the mound, because I look at him as candidate to be in our rotation and a candidate to be in our bullpen. I'm looking forward to seeing him pitch for the first time with a realistic chance to make the ballclub, see how he competes."

Stephenson is open to working out of the bullpen, if need be.

"Obviously I want to be up there," he said. "Any way I can get there is OK with me. I just want to help the team win."

Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Mark My Word, follow him on Twitter @m_sheldon and Facebook and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.