There is still much to be determined about how the Cleveland Guardians’ bullpen will fill out come Opening Day of the 2022 season. Right-hander Trevor Stephan could be a low-key, high-powered weapon in his sophomore season.
The Rule 5 Draft is a curious phenomenon in the world of baseball. There isn’t a good comparison for it across any of the other major sports in the United States, and it can be used to great effect for a team willing to take a chance on a player not protected on his team’s 40-man roster.
Cleveland doesn’t typically make much hay in the Rule 5 Draft, having not kept a draftee on the active roster for a full season since Hector Ambriz in 2009. That was the case, at least, until the then-Indians took RHP Trevor Stephan from the New York Yankees organization in the 2020 Rule 5 Draft.
Per the terms of taking a player in the MLB portion of the Rule 5 Draft, they must remain on the active roster of the team taking them for the entirety of the following season, which Cleveland was able to do with Stephan in 2021. This allows the Guardians to potentially keep him with the team potentially through the end of the 2026 season when his arbitration years will be up.
Stephan is a clear-cut pitcher in terms of his physical attributes, with a 6-foot-5, 225-pound frame and a cannon for an arm. He features three pitches in his arsenal, with a high-velocity four-seam fastball, a slicing slider, and a developing split-finger fastball. He has transitioned from a prospective starter in the Yankee pipeline to a serviceable relief pitcher with Cleveland, with high-leverage potential at the back of the bullpen.
Prior to his time in Cleveland, Stephan pitched primarily as a starter in the Yankee organization. He never pitched above Double-A, and had some question marks as a starter. His limited arsenal fit more of a relief profile as he ascended closer to MLB, and the Tribe saw enough upside to make him a Rule 5 pick.
Coming into spring training of 2021, Stephan hadn’t pitched since 2019 due to the cancellation of the 2020 MiLB season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the start of camp, he projected as an option out of the bullpen for a Cleveland squad that needed a couple more depth pieces. Given his Rule 5 status, and the potential for his return to New York should be be taken off of the active roster, there was a good amount riding on the young righty finding his footing quickly. Ultimately, Stephan put together a respectable spring and was a member of the Opening Day roster for Cleveland.
Throughout most of the 2021 season, Stephan made lower-leverage appearances, often in games that were decided one way or another. He featured good strikeout stuff, but had some problems with the long ball, getting tattooed for 15 home runs in 63 1/3 innings. He also featured some command struggles, with 31 walks. Overall, Stephan managed a 4.41 ERA in his rookie season.
Part of the struggle for Stephan was the inability to send him down to Columbus to iron out any problems he ran into against MLB-caliber hitters. To do so would have potentially landed him with another organization through waivers or being offered back to New York (per the rules for Rule 5 picks), so there was the element of trial-by-fire to Stephan’s rookie campaign.
Coming into 2022, Stephan is considered to be a core contributor to the bullpen. A full rookie campaign under his belt, plus an offseason to make adjustments to his delivery and refine his command, could help the 26 year-old to settle himself in as a higher-leverage arm, potentially taking on some of the duties held by other relievers (such as Bryan Shaw) in 2021.
On the bullpen depth chart, it is likely that Stephan could slot in behind a couple of big names in the backend. Emmanuel Clase and James Karinchak (assuming he finds himself after his 2021 collapse) are the featured names due to their electric stuff and high-velocity arms. Although not as notable a name to this point in his career, Stephan is cut from a similar cloth as Cleveland’s presumed closer and setup man. His arsenal contains a quick four-seamer with some late life, a slider with strong cut action, and a split-finger fastball that has the potential to be a plus out-pitch with a little more seasoning against live batters.
What could help Stephan become a secret weapon for Cleveland is his flexibility out of the bullpen, the late-innings potential, and a lack of name recognition outside of the organization.
Stephan has the tools of a potential late-inning, high-leverage reliever, which could be a massive boon to the bullpen should Karinchak return to form this coming season. Cleveland could theoretically have a trio of power arms in the back of the bullpen, similar to the Clase-Karinchak-Shaw trifecta that made the bullpen a strong point in the early part of 2021.
Stephan also has long-reliever potential, going back to his time as a starter in New York’s system. In his 43 appearances with the Indians last season, 15 of those were 2+ innings of work, showing some versatility in his game. An arm like Stephan’s with some length can be invaluable, especially for saving other bullpen arms and eating innings on the backend of close games if necessary.
With Clase and Karinchak likely getting a lot of the bullpen headlines in spring training, pitchers like Stephan (and even Nick Sandlin and Anthony Gose) will be able to fly under the radar without as much attention. Having a couple of guys that don’t make as much noise but feature good stuff will benefit Cleveland, especially if the back of the bullpen is a strong as projected. Rolling out Stephan in the seventh inning of a tight game, only to have Karinchak and Clase waiting behind him, could turn many comeback attempts into moot points for the opposition.
Projecting arms in the bullpen is often heavily based in speculation, but the Guardians have plenty of pieces that rouse intrigue as the spring is beginning to heat up. In terms of physical makeup and having a year’s worth of experience under his belt, Trevor Stephan has all the peripherals of a guy who can be a dominant force in Cleveland’s bullpen for years to come. The 2022 season could be his year to step up and show why the Guardians were right to make him a Rule 5 pick.