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Cody Reed, Robert Stephenson Aim To Get Back On Track

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Cody Reed (Photo by Bill Mitchell)

When Cody Reed and Robert Stephenson broke into the majors in 2016, it was supposed to mark the beginning of the next wave of Reds starting pitching.

They would make their debuts in 2016, get their first full seasons in 2017, and become rotation stalwarts by 2018. That was the plan, and something the Reds banked on as the franchise mapped out its rebuild.

But as so often happens with the pitcher development, things didn’t go according to plan.

Stephenson and Reed are in a rotation in 2018, but it’s at Triple-A Louisville.

Stephenson owns a 5.10 ERA in the majors. Reed's is 6.65. They’ve both been up to the majors, sent back down, brought back up, and sent back down again. It’s been a yo-yo existence, to the point that both have graduated from prospect eligibility, but are not major leaguers.

Stephenson and Reed, both 25, are aiming to change that. Where the former Top 100 Prospects were once focused on making up the front of the Reds rotation, the goal is much simpler now: get back to the big leagues and, for the first time, stay there.

“It’s tough for them because they think they did enough to get there, but it’s not always enough to just throw the ball over the plate and get guys out,” said Louisville pitching coach Jeff Fassero, a 16-year major league veteran. “You’ve still got to have some kind of preparation and an idea of what you’re going to do because you’re out there to face the best.“

Stephenson finished last season in the Reds rotation, but he failed to make the team out of spring training this year. Reed made the team, made just four appearances (one start) and was sent down.

The humbling demotions convinced them both adjustments had to be made.

For Stephenson, the changes have been mostly physical. Fassero has emphasized to Stephenson staying taller on his back leg to get better angle on his pitches, and they have also introduced a new wrinkle into his delivery.

“In spring training at the very end Fassero noticed that when I’m playing catch, like long toss, I’ll kind of do a glove tap,” Stephenson said. “When you’re playing long toss that’s kind of the most natural throwing position, so I’ve kind of worked on incorporating that glove tap into my mechanics now and I’m starting to get pretty comfortable with that. It’s just helped me smooth out my mechanics a little bit and helped me stay on the ball.”

Reed’s adjustments have been mostly mental. By his own admission, he spent much of the past in a negative frame of mind, and it consumed him to his own detriment.

“My mindset is way better than what it was,” Reed said. “I was real bitter last year. I started spring training of last year and they told me I made the ‘pen because Bronson Arroyo made the rotation, and that was a tough pill to swallow. I know I didn’t really earn my keep in the season of ’16, but I thought I made a pretty good case for myself in spring training.

“I had to remember baseball is fun for me. I think that’s what’s really helping me stay away from being mad at the world because I’m not in the big leagues or I’m down here or I feel like better than other people. I’ve totally erased that and just kind of focused on me and what I can do to get better and help the team.”

The early reviews on their adjustments are mixed. Stephenson’s 3.93 ERA with Louisville is better than any of his three previous stints there. Reed’s 4.24 ERA through five starts is worse than his previous two stints, although there’s a lot of season left.

But control has been the biggest bugaboo for each, and that is still a work in progress. Stephenson has a career 5.3-walks per-nine rate in the majors and has walked 20 in 35 innings at Louisville this season. Reed walked more batters than he struck out last year in the majors and has a concerning 18-to-13 strikeout-to-walk mark this season in Triple-A.

“It’s just all directional stuff with their bodies,” Fassero said. “Keeping the direction as long as you possibly can. Mostly making their momentum and direction go towards home plate instead of one of them falling to first base, that would be Robert, and the other one falling to third base, which is Cody.”

In order to get them to stay on line to the plate, Fassero has incorporated a visual aide in their bullpen sessions.

“Really I just draw a line (in the dirt) out there and tell them to keep their head inside that line the whole way,” Fassero said. “Now they’re getting to a point where they’ll keep the line out there if they think they need it. They’ve both been pretty solid as far as their direction goes and I see it in the quality of pitches they’re throwing right now.”

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How much Stephenson and Reed can improve their control will be the determining factor if they end up starting or relieving long-term. While starting is the ultimate goal, sticking in the majors any way they can will suffice.

“I just turned 25 last month and I really think that my career can blossom just being a starting pitcher,” Reed said. “But if they don’t think that and they think I can be a good bullpen guy, then I’m going to be the best bullpen guy they have. I’m just excited to see where it takes me through this year, just because I’ve made a lot of changes internally.”

Reed and Stephenson will get another shot at the majors. Their pedigree almost demands it. Stephenson was a first-round pick in 2011, and Reed was a headliner prospect acquired in the Johnny Cueto deal in 2015.

But they also know nothing is guaranteed, and that changes have to be made for them to reach their potential.

“I think the biggest thing for me, especially while I’m here, is just to be as positive as possible,” Stephenson said. “Just having a lot more fun, being relaxed while I’m out on the mound, instead of trying to take everything too seriously.”

Said Reed: “This last time, I was disappointed in myself that I got sent down, but I wasn’t near as mad at myself or the people who sent me down as I was before. I think that I thought things were just supposed to be given to me and now I know that in baseball and life in general there’s really nothing given to you. You’ve got to perform or you’re not going to be there, and I wasn’t. I think I’m capable of performing and being a big leaguer and hopefully a starting pitcher big leaguer, and I’m just waiting for the next opportunity.”

Neither Stephenson nor Reed is who they or the Reds hoped they would be right now. But they’re doing what they can to ensure that after this, they won’t have to return to Triple-A ever again.

“That’s what they want,” Fassero said. “They’ve both been up there, they’ve seen what its like, they haven’t had the success that they want, now they’re working more towards that. The next time they go up, they won’t come back down. That’s the goal.”

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