Top Landing Spots for Breakout Bullpen Arm Robert Stephenson

The righty Robert Stephenson is one of the most sought-after bullpen pieces on the free agent market following his breakout season in 2023.

MIAMI, FLORIDA - AUGUST 29: Robert Stephenson #26 of the Tampa Bay Rays checks his PitchCom device during the sixth inning against the Miami Marlins at loanDepot park on August 29, 2023 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images)

Robert Stephenson was a delightful surprise for the Tampa Bay Rays bullpen in 2023. 

After a rough start with the Pittsburgh Pirates, the righty wound up in Tampa in early June, heading south in exchange for shortstop Alika Williams. At the time, it looked like a minor, forgettable trade, but clearly, the Rays saw something they liked in his powerful arm. Almost immediately, Stephenson turned his season around — and perhaps his career, too.

Stephenson, 30, posted a 2.53 ERA over his first month with his new team, and the rest of the season was more of the same. In 42 appearances for the Rays, he pitched to a 2.35 ERA, 2.45 FIP, and 1.1 FanGraphs WAR. He was one of the nastiest relievers in the American League.

In a matter of months, the hard-throwing bullpen arm went from unknown name to top-50 free agent. Several teams are now vying for his services, and he can expect to earn a hefty raise on the open market. So, where could Stephenson end up for his age-31 campaign?

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Top Five Landing Spots for Robert Stephenson

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: Identifying landing spots for relievers, especially non-closers, is tough.

Thankfully, for my purposes, at least, Robert Stephenson has already been linked to numerous teams this winter. In fact, according to Jon Morosi of MLB Network, Stephenson has been “one of the most popular free-agent relievers this offseason.”

One club linked to Stephenson has already gone in a different direction; Baltimore signed Craig Kimbrel to a $13 million deal, and it seems unlikely the low-budget Orioles will sign another pricey free agent for the ‘pen.

PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA – JUNE 25: Craig Kimbrel #31 of the Philadelphia Phillies pitches during the ninth inning against the New York Mets at Citizens Bank Park on June 25, 2023 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

However, every other team Morosi identified could still be a good fit for Stephenson: the Yankees, Rangers, Astros, Cubs, Dodgers, and Angels.

Of those six, I think the Angels are the least likely to sign a top free agent reliever. They have several other holes on the roster to worry about, and they might be better off taking a quantity-over-quality approach to fill out the bullpen.

With that said, here is a look at five clubs Robert Stephenson could be pitching for come 2024.

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New York Yankees

2023 Bullpen Stats: 3.34 ERA (1st), 44 SV (11th), 619 IP (11th), 4.2 fWAR (16th)

Top Relievers for 2024: Clay Holmes, Jonathan Loáisiga, Ian Hamilton, Tommy Kahnle

The Yankees were linked to Robert Stephenson well before they missed out on Yoshinobu Yamamoto. Now that the big fish has landed in another net, the Bronx Bombers should have plenty of money to spend elsewhere.

While the Yankees had the best bullpen ERA in baseball last season, the underlying metrics weren’t as kind – they ranked eighth in FIP, ninth in xFIP, and 14th in SIERA. Moreover, they’ll be without Michael King (3.08 relief ERA, 64.1 IP), Jhony Brito (1.43 ERA, 37.2 IP), Keynan Middleton (1.88 ERA, 14.1 IP), and Wandy Peralta (2.83 ERA, 54 IP) next season, so they could certainly use some more arms.

I wouldn’t count the Yankees out for Josh Hader or Jordan Hicks, but Robert Stephenson might be the best fit to join Clay Holmes and Jonathan Loáisiga at the back of New York’s bullpen.

Texas Rangers

2023 Bullpen Stats: 4.77 ERA (24th), 30 SV (27th), 564.1 IP (24th), 2.6 fWAR (23rd)

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Top Relievers for 2024: José Leclerc, Josh Sborz, Kirby Yates

The defending champs need bullpen innings more than ever after losing Will Smith, Aroldis Chapman, Chris Stratton, and Martín Pérez to free agency.

Indeed, what the Rangers could really use is a bona fide closer (and left-handed stud) like Josh Hader, but if they miss out on Hader, Stephenson could join the long-tenured José Leclerc and 2023 postseason hero Josh Sborz to form a solid 1-2-3 punch for the later innings.

ST PETERSBURG, FLORIDA – OCTOBER 04: Jose Leclerc #25 and Jonah Heim #28 of the Texas Rangers celebrate after defeating the Tampa Bay Rays 7-1in Game Two of the Wild Card Series at Tropicana Field on October 04, 2023 in St Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

Houston Astros

2023 Bullpen Stats: 3.56 ERA (6th), 42 SV (18th), 545.1 IP (29th), 3.8 fWAR (18th)

Top Relievers for 2024: Bryan Abrey, Ryan Pressly

Like their AL West rivals, the Astros need bullpen help, too, after Hector Neris, Phil Maton, and Ryne Stanek all became free agents this winter.

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Ownership might not be willing to shell out the big bucks for Josh Hader or even Jordan Hicks, but Stephenson could be the next best thing. He won’t command top dollar, but if the Astros can help him pitch to his full potential, he could be one of the better relievers in baseball next season.

Los Angeles Dodgers

2023 Bullpen Stats: 3.42 ERA (3rd), 44 SV (11th), 644.2 IP (8th), 7.6 fWAR (1st)

Top Relievers for 2024: Evan Phillips, Brusdar Graterol, Joe Kelly, Caleb Ferguson

Sure, the Dodgers were linked to Stephenson before they went on their unprecedented spending spree (welcome to Hollywood, Shohei, Tyler, and Yoshinobu!), but why should we think they’re done buying now? This is the Dodgers after all.

Besides, plenty of players have been known to take less money to sign in Los Angeles — especially promising but unpredictable pitchers like Stephenson.

The Dodgers arm barn is probably one of the top five in baseball right now, but it still might be their biggest weakness. I wouldn’t be surprised if they make a big bullpen acquisition before the offseason is up.

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Chicago Cubs

2023 Bullpen Stats: 3.85 ERA (13th), 35 SV (24th), 584 IP (19th), 4.4 fWAR (15th)

Top Relievers for 2024: Adbert Alzolay, Julian Merryweather, Mark Leiter Jr.

Fans are still waiting for the Cubs to do something… anything… literally anything.

The Cubs were one of the first teams linked to Stephenson, and they still seem like a pretty good fit. They have the need, they have the money, and at this point in their offseason, they should be more desperate to get a deal done than just about anyone.

This team needs to add a lot more than Robert Stephenson to make this a successful offseason, but a strong addition to the bullpen would be a great start.