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Higher call? '20 may be dream year for Reds' C

Notable progress in all-around game has Stephenson on verge of bigs
@m_sheldon
January 13, 2020

CINCINNATI – Reds top catching prospect Tyler Stephenson knows he’s inching ever so close to reaching the big leagues. More pieces seemed to fall into place over the past year, setting him up to achieve his dream in 2020. First, Stephenson had the best hitting season of his pro career

CINCINNATI – Reds top catching prospect Tyler Stephenson knows he’s inching ever so close to reaching the big leagues. More pieces seemed to fall into place over the past year, setting him up to achieve his dream in 2020.

First, Stephenson had the best hitting season of his pro career at Double-A Chattanooga. That was followed by a sensational Arizona Fall League season and being added to Cincinnati’s 40-man roster for the first time. Finally, the 23-year-old attended the Rookie Career Development Program, which was held last week in Miami in a joint effort by Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association.

“Being on the verge, hopefully, of being called up … I think the realistic chance of getting that call is higher than any other year,” Stephenson said last week. “I think that’s the ultimate goal -- break with the big league team in spring. If I don’t have that mentality, I’m kind of in the wrong game. Going into Spring Training, that’s the full mentality I have.”

Cincinnati already has Major League veterans Tucker Barnhart and Curt Casali forming its catching tandem, with utility player Kyle Farmer as the third catcher. But Stephenson is in position to be the long-term future, if he’s not the short-term one out of camp.

Stephenson, who is ranked as the Reds’ No. 7 prospect by MLB Pipeline, batted .285/.372/.410 with six homers and 44 RBIs in 89 games last season for Chattanooga. In 13 more games in the AFL, he batted .347/.418/.490 with seven doubles.

Although a larger-sized catcher at 6-foot-4, Stephenson has drawn good reviews from scouts for his defensive work. He’s considered to have good hands and flexibility at the position, and he’s still working well with his progress on game-calling skills and throwing mechanics.

The 11th overall pick by the Reds in the 2015 MLB Draft, Stephenson’s first two full seasons in the Minor Leagues were marred by injuries and poor performance. He had to repeat at Class A Dayton in 2016-17 before moving to Class A Advanced Daytona in ’18.

“I had a concussion and I had a wrist surgery, a sprained ligament in my thumb. You name it, I kind of had it,” Stephenson said. “I’ve been blessed that the past two seasons, I’ve been healthy. Looking back on this past year, I learned a lot and made the jump to Double-A. Some stuff started to click, and I made it to the Fall League and continued that progression. I had a great opportunity there. It was probably one of the highlight memories of my Minor League career. It was awesome.”

Stephenson among prospects set to break out in '20

Stephenson was healthy with Daytona in 2018 and played in 109 games while hitting a career-high 11 homers, and it helped earn him Florida State League All-Star honors.

All 30 Major League organizations sent players to the Rookie Career Development Program. All are considered to be on the cusp of reaching the big leagues, and there are a few who have already made it.

Joining Stephenson in Miami this year were outfielder Aristides Aquino, starting pitcher Tony Santillan (No. 4 prospect) and reliever Joel Kuhnel (No. 23). The RCDP was established to help young players avoid some of the pitfalls that could derail or destroy a promising Major League career. Among the sessions held were dealing with the media, how to handle situations in the clubhouse, drugs in baseball, inclusion and financial planning, just to name a handful of issues addressed.

“It’s a great opportunity just to be selected,” Stephenson said of the RCDP. “I know a couple of guys who did it last year, and they talked highly of it. Just to be able to represent the Reds, take that next step and learn some more info, it’s a great honor.”

Mark Sheldon has covered the Reds for MLB.com since 2006, and previously covered the Twins from 2001-05. Follow him on Twitter @m_sheldon and Facebook.