Veteran reliever Robert Stephenson was in the midst of a very poor 2023 season when the Pirates traded him to an American League East contender last June.
The Rays took a chance on a good but struggling arm. They were hopeful that they get the 6-foot-3 righty back to pitching like he did in 2021 out of the Rockies bullpen and late into 2022 after the Pirates acquired him in a waiver claim.
Stephenson quickly became better than ever right after Rays pitching coach Kyle Snyder suggested he add a little velocity to his slider.
The switch led to Stephenson having a fantastic finish to his walk year to free agency, and it’s now turned to a nice financial payoff for the Bay Area native.
This winter, the Yankees were interested in adding Stephenson and just this week there was a report that they were making a run at him.
The price must have been too high for GM Brian Cashman.
Stephenson is of the board as of Friday.
The Angels and Stephenson came to terms on a three-year, $33-miillion deal with an option for a fourth, The Athletic reported.
The deal was struck a few hours after Josh Hader, the top free agent reliever, signed with the Astros for $95 million over five seasons.
The Stephenson signing forces the Yankees to turn to other options for a possible bullpen grade before spring training. Free agent righty Hector Neris, who had a great 2023 season for Houston, has been on their radar but thus far deemed too pricy.
The Yankees want their 2024 bullpen as deep and strong as it was last season when the unit had the lowest ERA in the majors.
Free agents Wandy Peralta and Keynan Middleton might not be re-signed and Greg Weissert was traded, but they’ve been countered with three inexpensive additions. Lefty reliever Victor Gonzalez was acquired in a trade with the Dodgers. right-hander Cody Morris came in a deal with the Guardians and free agent righty Cody Poteet was signed for one year at $750,000.
The Yankees still would like to add a high-leverage arm to pitch ahead of closer Clay Holmes in the seventh or eighth inning. Currently, their expected late-inning bullpen options will be Tommy Kahnle, Jonathan Loaisiga, Ian Hamilton and Scott Effross, the latter of whom is returning from Tommy John surgery. Righty Ron Marinaccio and lefty Nick Ramirez also will be in the mix for bullpen spots.
Stephenson would have been a nice addition for the Yankees. He was 3-1 with a career-low 3.10 ERA last season in a career-high 60 appearances. In 52 1/3 innings, he struck out 77 and walked just 16.
His numbers were poor when the Rays got him Pittsburgh on June 2 for shortstop prospect Alika Williams.
For the Pirates, Stephenson was 0-3 5.14 ERA in 18 games.
A couple weeks after the trade, Stephenson was approached about tweaking his best pitch. By throwing his slider about 4 mph harder, from 84 to 88, it turned into a cutter that hitters couldn’t handle.
“It kind of worked out,” Stephenson told MLB.com last summer. “Something clicked for me and I was able to do it. To be honest, the day (Snyder) mentioned it was the same day I adjusted it. It was a quick fix. Something he said to me just made sense.”
In 2022, Stephenson basically was a two-pitch pitcher throwing sliders 50.5 percent of the time and four-seams fastballs 47.8 percent of the time.
Stephenson, who turns 31 on Feb. 24, was a Reds first-round draft pick in 2011, debuted in the majors in 2016 and switched to relief full-time in 2019. His salary last season was $1.75 million.
For his career, Stephenson is 17-20 with 4.64 ERA in eight seasons with the Reds (2016-20), Rockies (2021-22), Pirates (2022-23) and Rays (2023).