Jackson Stephens battled injuries throughout the 2023 season, but did make it back to the majors with the Atlanta Braves where he pitched pretty well in a small sample.
The Braves originally acquired Stephens when he agreed to a minor league contract on January 29, 2022. He was a free agent again at the end of the 2022 season and re-signed with Atlanta on a split contract on December 26.
Stephens’ offseason included an amusing quirk: he was designated for assignment when the Braves acquired reliever Dennis Santana from the Rangers. Stephens ended up outlasting Santana in the organization anyway, as Santana ended up switching teams two more times in the offseason, and then getting designated for assignment by the Mets four separate times over the course of the 2023 campaign. Meanwhile, Stephens hung around enough at Gwinnett to get his contract selected by the Braves in September.
What were the expectations?
Stephens came out of nowhere to play a key role out of the bullpen in 2022. He was outrighted off the 40-man roster at the end of Spring Training, but stuck with the team in hopes of getting another opportunity out of the bullpen. He was largely expected to be something akin to a lower-end reliever, considering his 90 FIP-/102 xFIP- in 2022, but not quite on the edges of the roster fringe. In that respect, it’s a little surprising that he only got major league usage towards the end of the year, but that’s explained by the fact that he spent most of the year on Gwinnett’s Injured List, and the Braves had added bullpen reinforcements by the time he was healthy.
Stephens was placed on the Injured List on April 3 for an undisclosed injury while he was at Gwinnett. He didn’t begin a rehab assignment until June 27, and wasn’t activated from the until July 20. The Braves selected his contract on September 11 and he appeared in five games while allowing four runs over 12 innings. He actually pitched pretty well in that tiny sample: 68 ERA-, 87 FIP-, 92 xFIP-, with one shutdown and no meltdowns.
His season came to an end on October 1, when he was again placed on the Injured List with elbow inflammation. After the World Series, he was outrighted and elected free agency.
What went right?
Despite dealing with a major injury that kept him out for about half of the season, Stephens made his way back to the majors with the Braves and pitched decently well in a small sample.
Stephens prioritized his cutter/slider over his fastballs at the big league level when given a chance. His curveball has excellent break and works well despite him largely throwing it as a get-me-over, so there were definitely things to work with there.
He played a big role in a losing effort on September 16 — Jared Shuster was knocked out after three innings and five runs, but Stephens took over and pitched three scoreless frames, during which the Braves tied the game. However, Kirby Yates and Michael Tonkin melted down late and the Braves got blown out at the end, but Stephens showcased his potential value in that game. Here’s his last pitch of that outing, escaping a jam with a groundout:
What went wrong?
Stephens didn’t make the Opening Day roster and lost his 40-man spot due to being out of options. The injuries were the biggest factor and limited him to 33 1/3 innings in the minors before his return to the active roster. His cutter stratagem also didn’t work super-well, as he kept missing the zone with it — only 36.5 percent of his cutters found the zone.
All in all, he wasn’t perfect in 2023, even though he was definitely good enough to show up late in the year and pitch pretty well. Here’s him hanging a changeup to Brandon Marsh, with predictable results:
Stephens is a free agent again this offseason and will be entering his age-30 season. He will likely look around for a major league offer, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see him return to the Braves on a minor league deal, given that he’s stuck with the organization repeatedly already. The team has been very complimentary of him both on the field and in the clubhouse the last two seasons. His ability as a multi-inning arm could be appealing provided he has put the injuries behind him. And frankly, you could do a lot worse, both in terms of interesting profile and past performance, than Stephens, based on the bullpen depth the Braves have attempted to leverage in recent years.