We expected the Josh Hader signing to take the lid off the reliever market, and it didn’t take long for the deals to start flying. Next up: The Angels, who have reportedly signed former Rays setup man Robert Stephenson to a three-year, $33 million deal.
Free-agent pitcher Robert Stephenson in agreement with the Los Angeles Angels, pending physical, according to sources familiar with the deal.— Robert Murray (@ByRobertMurray) January 20, 2024
It’s been quite the journey for a pitcher who had a 5.14 ERA for the Pirates at the end of May 2023. Pittsburgh flipped Stephenson to the always pitching-savvy Rays, who swapped out his slider for a devastating cutter and watched him blossom into one of the most dominant relievers in the game. The 31-year-old righty pitched to a 2.35 ERA with 60 strikeouts across 38.1 innings in Tampa, largely thanks to that cutter — which posted a .101 BA against and a ridiculous 59.9% whiff rate.
Whether Stephenson can continue that success away from the Rays — he owned a 4.90 career ERA across seven seasons with the Reds and Rockies prior to last season — remains to be seen, but the Angels are certainly paying him as though they think the answer is yes. Carlos Estevez is the established closer in L.A., but Stephenson figures to slot in right behind him in manager Ron Washington’s pecking order. The Halos’ bullpen was among the biggest reasons the team disappointed in 2023, with a 4.88 reliever ERA that ranked 25th in the Majors. With Stephenson leading a group of newcomers that also includes fellow free-agent signings Adam Cimber, Luis Garcia and Adam Kolarek, that group will certainly have more depth this season.
That likely won’t be enough to get this team anywhere near contention as they begin life after Shohei Ohtani, but it’s something at least. The Angels had the money to spend, and locking up Stephenson for three years will help keep things at least somewhat respectable without impacting their future flexibility. And hey, if he continues to pitch the way he did in the second half of last year, that production on that contract figures to be an awfully valuable trade chip down the line for an organization in desperate need of young talent.