Jeff Passan, ESPNJan 21, 2024, 10:31 PM ET
- ESPN MLB insider
Author of “The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports”
Right-hander Robert Stephenson and the Los Angeles Angels are in agreement on a three-year, $33 million contract that includes a conditional option that could be triggered if Stephenson misses a particular amount of time due to an elbow injury, sources familiar with the deal told ESPN on Sunday night.
The contract, expected to be official once Stephenson completes a physical on Monday, landed the Angels the best reliever left on the market — one who parlayed an incredible second half of last season into a deal worth $11 million per year.
With questions about Stephenson’s elbow health — he began last season on the injured list with elbow soreness — the Angels will receive an option for the 2027 season at $2.5 million if his elbow needs Tommy John surgery or causes a long absence, according to sources.
They paid heavily for Stephenson’s contract, giving him the second-most money for a free agent reliever this winter, behind Josh Hader‘s five-year, $95 million deal with the Houston Astros, the Angels’ American League West rival.
The Angels finished last season with a 4.88 ERA, the sixth worst in baseball. Beyond incumbent closer Carlos Estevez, the Angels’ bullpen was full of opportunity, and Stephenson joins right-handed relievers Adam Cimber and Luis Garcia and left-handed reliever Adam Kolarek as free agent signings by Los Angeles.
After the Tampa Bay Rays acquired Stephenson from the Pittsburgh Pirates on June 2, he spent the final four months as one of the best relievers in baseball. In 38⅓ innings with the Rays, Stephenson struck out 60 hitters and walked just eight, posting a 2.35 ERA in 42 games.
It was the best stretch of a career that previously had seen him register as a below-league-average pitcher. While Stephenson had flirted with high strikeout rates, he came into 2023 with a 4.90 ERA in 312 career innings. The Angels will rely on him to help a team that lost superstar Shohei Ohtani to free agency but still aspires to be competitive under new manager Ron Washington and with superstar Mike Trout returning.
The Angels could continue to add in free agency and have considered signing one of the marquee players on the free agent market — in particular, left-hander Blake Snell and first baseman/centerfielder Cody Bellinger.
Following a 73-89 finish in 2023, they would need to add talent to compete within their impressive division, which includes the reigning World Series champion Texas Rangers as well as the Astros and the Seattle Mariners, all of whom have postseason aspirations.