High school catchers can often take a long time to develop, so the Reds were ready to be patient when they took Stephenson from the Georgia prep ranks No. 11 overall in the 2015 Draft. Stephenson was slowed even more by injuries that forced him out for large chunks of his first full season. He turned a corner health-wise in 2018, playing in over 100 games for the first time, then took a big step forward with a move to Double-A in 2019, followed by a strong showing in the Arizona Fall League. That led to a spot on the 40-man roster, paving the way to him making his big league debut in 2020 and hitting a home run in his first Major League at-bat.
Stephenson has worked hard to make up for the missed development time to improve all facets of his game. At 6-foot-4, he’s a long-levered backstop, one who has to shorten everything he does on both sides of the ball. Defensively, he’s shortened his arm stroke, quickened his transfer and improved how quickly he gets the ball to second base without reducing any arm strength. He’s seen upticks in metrics in terms of his framing and his footwork in transitioning to throwing.
He’s done the same thing on the offensive side of the game. He’s always had good raw power and a solid approach, but length in his swing had held him back. He’s shortened it allowing him to wait longer and make better adjustments at the plate. He was one of the best pure hitters at the Reds’ alternate training site and he’s ready to contribute full-time in the big leagues, with a ceiling as a big league starter.
2020 Scouting grades: Hit: 50 | Power: 50 | Run: 40 | Arm: 60 | Field: 55 | Overall: 55
Coming off a 2019 that was the best season of his pro career since being taken 11th overall in 2015, Stephenson is now knocking on the big league door after being added to the 40-man roster in the offseason. With injuries hopefully in the rearview mirror, Stephenson provides depth at a premium position and is just about ready to answer when the call comes.
Stephenson, who will be 23 for most of the 2020 season, has moved up the rankings after he batted .285/.372/.410 with six homers and 44 RBIs in 89 games last season for Chattanooga. In 13 more games in the Arizona Fall League, he hit .347/.418/.490 with seven doubles. Much of the improvement is credited to his learning how to shorten his swing and improved strength as he continued to grow into his 6-foot-4 frame. Stephenson has demonstrated higher exit velocities when making contact.
Already well-regarded defensively because of his good hands, flexibility and being a good target, Stephenson took steps in ’19 to improve his pitch-framing skills while throwing more consistently. All of those tools will have to continue to make strides, but after battling several injuries over his first two years of pro ball, he has shown good health and the signs of just about being close to big league ready, with the ceiling of being a Major League starting backstop.
2019 Scouting grades: Hit: 50 | Power: 50 | Run: 40 | Arm: 60 | Field: 55 | Overall: 50
The Reds seem to be getting rewarded for their patience with Stephenson, who endured numerous struggles and injuries after being selected No. 11 overall out of high school in 2015. His first two full pro seasons included a concussion, a right wrist issue and a thumb injury that shut him down in July of 2017. But he was healthy in 2018 and delivered results.
There are many reasons to be high on Stephenson, especially because of his defense. Despite being a bigger guy at 6-foot-4, he doesn't look too big when he's set up behind the plate while offering a good target and showing excellent flexibility. One scout felt his hands were the best part of his defense. Stephenson still has length in his throwing mechanics, but has kept working to shorten his throws in order to maximize his plus arm strength, and is making progress calling games.
Still learning who he is as a hitter, Stephenson hits for average but has some raw power. He needs to figure out the breaking ball and how to hit it. By staying on the field last season and showing what he can do, it brought optimism that Stephenson can be a quality everyday Major League catcher.
2018 Scouting grades: Hit: 45 | Power: 50 | Run: 40 | Arm: 60 | Field: 50 | Overall: 50
It can take longer for a high school catcher to develop, given all of the responsibilities for the position, so the Reds were willing to be patient when they took Stephenson with the No. 11 overall pick in the 2015 Draft. Injuries, a concussion and a right wrist issue in 2016, then a thumb problem that ended his season in July in 2017, have severely hampered his ability to move forward, though the Reds were pleased with his progress before he was shut down last season.
At the time of his season-ending injury in the Midwest League, Stephenson was keeping pace with Reds breakout prospects Taylor Trammell and Jose Siri in many respects, all while learning the nuances of catching. He has the chance to carry an average hit tool with above-average power by the time he is big league ready. He has legitimate raw pop and his improvement in his approach at the plate, drawing more walks, will only allow him to tap into it more consistently. He has a strong arm at the plate that he hasn't fully learned to use well to control the running game, though he has made strides with his footwork and release.
The most important thing for Stephenson at this point is to get in a full, healthy season. If he can do that, he is a prime choice to be a breakout prospect candidate.
2017 Scouting grades: Hit: 45 | Power: 50 | Run: 40 | Arm: 60 | Field: 50 | Overall: 50
After being the consensus best catcher in the 2015 Draft class, Stephenson went No. 11 overall and performed well in his pro debut. He needed a mulligan for his first full season, however, as a concussion, and then a wrist injury, kept him off the field and from important development time for much of the year. He was making strides in return to action in 2017 when a thumb ligament injury ended his season in July.
The good news is that the Georgia high school product is still only 20 years old and he hasn't lost any of the tools that made him a first-round pick. At the plate, he has shown good on-base skills and can drive the ball to all fields. There should be more power to come as he grows into his 6-foot-4 frame. That is not the ideal size for a backstop, but Stephenson does have arm strength and agility, especially for his size. He will need to continue to work on his footwork and to quicken his release. He spent a lot of time with former big league catcher Corky Miller in 2016 and was able to learn a lot about the mental side of catching, even when he was out of action.
It looked like Stephenson was starting to show why he was so highly coveted in the 2015 Draft class when the injury bug hit again. He'll have to try to hit another reset button in 2018.
2016 Scouting grades: Hit: 50 | Power: 50 | Run: 40 | Arm: 60 | Field: 50 | Overall: 50
Catching is always hard to find, and as a result, it's in high demand every Draft. The Reds got the consensus best catcher in the 2015 Draft when they took the Georgia high schooler No. 11 overall. Stephenson then handled a push to the Pioneer League, where he was one of the youngest players, with aplomb.
Stephenson impressed with his advanced approach at the plate during his debut. He has excellent on-base skills and an ability to use all fields. As Stephenson matures and adds strength to his 6-foot-4 frame, there's going to be more pop, with the chance to be at least Major League average with both his hit and power tools. Behind the plate, he moves well for his size. Stephenson has tremendous arm strength, and Cincinnati is working with him to quicken his release and speed up his footwork a little. He took to the nuances of game-calling and working with a staff extremely well, especially given that he was younger than most of the pitchers he was handling.
Developing a high school catcher can be a long process, and Stephenson's was slowed by a sore wrist in 2016, but he has all of the ingredients to evolve into a very good everyday receiver at the big league level.
2015 Scouting grades: Hit: 45 | Power: 55 | Run: 40 | Arm: 60 | Field: 55 | Overall: 55
With scouts bemoaning the lack of catching depth in the Draft class of 2015, Stephenson's emergence was a pleasant surprise. He became the consensus best backstop available, even being mentioned as a potential No. 1 pick, and was the first catcher taken, No. 11 overall by the Reds, who gave him a bonus that matched full pick value of just over $3.1 million.
Stephenson is quite advanced for a high schooler. His strong hands and arm translate into quality receiving and throwing skills, and he has surprising agility for a 6-foot-4, 210-pounder. Stephenson's combination of strength, bat speed and loft in his right-handed swing translate into huge raw power. There are some concerns about his ability to make contact against pro-level pitching, however, because his swing can get long.
His frame and skills remind scouts of Matt Wieters and the Reds can only hope he develops into the same kind of big league catcher in the future.