The Angels have frustrated fans this winter with their inability to make a big splash through free agency or trade, but their signing of veteran right-hander Robert Stephenson to a three-year, $33-million deal on Tuesday should send another positive ripple effect through what in 2023 was an extremely shallow bullpen.
Stephenson, 30, is coming off the best season of his eight-year major league career, having posted a 3.10 ERA over 52 1/3 innings in 60 games for the Pittsburgh Pirates and Tampa Bay Rays despite starting 2023 on the injured list because of a sore elbow.
He will join newcomers Luis García, a hard-throwing right-hander, and Adam Cimber, a submarine-throwing right-hander, in a revamped bullpen that returns closer Carlos Estévez and expects hard-throwing right-hander Ben Joyce back from an elbow injury.
Later Tuesday night, the Angels agreed to a one-year, $9-million deal with 34-year-old left-hander Matt Moore, according to a person familiar with the deal but not authorized to speak publicly about it, bringing to $49 million the amount the Angels have spent on their bullpen this winter.
Angels relievers ranked 25th in baseball with a 4.88 ERA and gave up 88 homers, the second most in the league, last season. They also gave up 113 more runs than they scored in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings, according to general manager Perry Minasian.
“Are we perfect? No, we’re not perfect,” Minasian said of the Angels bullpen on a video call. “With that being said, we’re definitely in a better place than we were at the start of the offseason.”
After being traded to Tampa Bay in June, Stephenson morphed into one of baseball’s best relievers, posting a 2.35 ERA and a 0.678 WHIP, with 14.1 strikeouts per nine innings over 38 1/3 innings. He struck out 42.9% of the hitters he faced and had an impressive 37.1% strikeout-minus-walk rate.
Much of Stephenson’s success with the Rays stemmed from velocity and vertical drop improvements he made with his cutter/slider while working with Tampa Bay pitching coach Kyle Snyder. He recorded the highest whiff rate in the majors after June 1 on a single pitch (his cutter/slider) at 59.9%, per Baseball Savant.
“I made a little adjustment on the way I release [the slider], it helped add some velocity to it, and I think that that helped a ton on putting the pitch in the zone more often and getting more swing and miss on it,” Stephenson said on a video call. “I feel like that's sustainable because the way I'm throwing it now. It's just a better version of that pitch.”
Stephenson’s second-half improvement in 2023 and his revamped slider gave the Angels enough confidence he would be worth such a large investment for a setup man, but the Angels also hold a $2.5-million option for 2027 that can be triggered if Stephenson spends 130 consecutive days on the injured list because of an elbow injury.
“He went to Tampa Bay last year, he had a new toy to play with and changed speed with his sliders, and he was one of the best, if not the best, reliever in baseball over his 40 innings there,” Minasian said. “We had a hard time in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings, so for us to win more games, we have to be better than those middle innings.
“Adding Stephenson to try to push as many guys [toward the back of the bullpen] as you can gives us another late-inning, high-leverage guy that [first-year manager Ron Washington] can use where he wants. It gives us more depth in the bullpen, which we felt was needed.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.