Reds map out plan to keep Stephenson in lineup

Hard-hitting backstop will be limited to around 65 games behind plate

February 16th, 2023

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- After veteran Curt Casali’s signing in December gave his team three catchers, manager David Bell printed an online version of the 2023 Reds schedule. Bell marked that schedule for the different games he plans to use at catcher, designated hitter and first base, and when he would give him days off.

“I have it written down. I can say where he’s playing. I’m serious,” Bell said on Thursday.

The goal is to have Stephenson in Cincinnati’s lineup for 140-150 games this season. But to keep him fresh and hopefully healthy, the plan is for the 26-year-old to catch 65 games. There will be some back-to-back games behind the plate, but not many.

“It made the most sense. I believe it was four out of 10 [catching so] he could play 140 or 150 games,” Bell said. “It was about three at DH, two at first out of 10, and then one off-day.”

Casali and another offseason signing, Luke Maile, will catch the remaining games. It will be a flexible schedule when they are behind the plate, depending on matchups and the starting pitcher. 

Stephenson wanted to catch enough games to be considered a catcher.

“I still want to be labeled. That's who I am, that's my identity,” he said.

Plans for a 162-game baseball season often have to be fluid, but especially so for catchers, a position with frequent wear and tear and higher injury risks. Stephenson knows that issue well. He was limited to 50 games in 2022 because of a concussion, a broken right thumb and the most serious -– a fractured right clavicle. The last two injuries came from foul tips.

“Selfishly, yeah, you'd love to go out there and catch every day, but I don't know that that's physically possible anymore,” Stephenson said. “Probably go look at J.T. [Realmuto]. He's probably in that 120-130 [game] range, maybe even more than that.”

Not counting the 2020 pandemic-shortened season, the All-Star Realmuto averaged 128 games caught for the Phillies from 2019-22.

“He's an unbelievable athlete. I know long term this will be better,” Stephenson said. “I know it will give me more days of rest. It's going to be new territory for me. We're going to adapt and see how it goes. I'm confident that it's going to go well and I will feel fresher, and that will be a big thing going forward.”

Stephenson borrowed a first baseman’s glove from former teammate Mike Moustakas last season, but he will have his own mitt this year. Infield coach Jeff Pickler has been breaking it in for him.

Having Stephenson’s bat in the lineup regularly will be critical for a Reds team that ranked 26th out of 30 Major League clubs in OPS, 23rd in runs and 21st in batting average.

Last season, Stephenson batted .319 with an .854 OPS, six home runs and 35 RBIs, but he missed 107 games.

“He’s an unbelievable hitter, an unbelievable catcher, an unbelievable human being,” Reds second baseman Jonathan India said. “He just had bad luck. There’s a lot of luck that comes with this game. He just didn’t get the right end of the stick. He got hurt by a foul tip, that’s unheard of. But he controls his attitude the best I’ve ever seen. He’s always working. He’s always doing what he has to do. And he’s always prepared to win. That’s what you need out of a catcher. You don’t have to worry about that guy, ever.” 

Stephenson went to the Chicago headquarters of his catching equipment provider -– EvoShield -- in the offseason and provided input on his protection and padding. 

“I got my new chest protector, and I sat my old one and my new one up at our table at our house, and I got my wife … she didn't know which one they were.” Stephenson said. “I said, 'Pick which one is harder.' She picked the right one. That's a good sign.”

Blocking drills have been successful thus far. In January, Stephenson started using foam balls, but he has since moved on to working with normal baseballs.

“I know we can practice all we want, but we won't know until games officially start and we're at game speed. I'm confident in it, and I don't have any issues,” Stephenson said.

Whether the reduced catching plan for Stephenson lasts beyond 2023 is unknown. He could always go back to full-time catching in future seasons.

“That's obviously a conversation for another day,” Stephenson said. “But we'll see how it goes this year.”