E.A. Sports Today

Working and waiting

Free agent Stephens staying positive, active as he hopes to get another shot at the big leagues when baseball returns post-coronavirus
By Al Muskewitz
East Alabama Sports Today
OXFORD – When Jackson Stephens was designated for assignment by the Cincinnati Reds last fall he found himself a man without a team and any options, but he was hopeful on being back on a major-league roster sooner than later.


He was a right-handed pitcher with one of the nastiest curveballs in the big leagues, surely a commodity some club would value.
He put his faith in his agent, waited it out, continued to work out and even had one team come watch him throw. Surely, an opportunity existed out there for a big arm with MLB experience.
Then the coronavirus pandemic hit in the middle of spring training when teams were trying to make decisions about their roster. Everything got shut down, no one was making deals and suddenly the former Oxford pitcher’s comeback was in a ‘rona rain delay.
But through it all he remains upbeat about getting another shot at The Show.
“I’m very positive,” he said. “Obviously, it stinks, but I’m very positive. There’s always a positive in something. Right now in our nation it’s kind of negative times. When it comes to sports, it’s very negative right now. We don’t know what’s going to happen. They say they’re going to come back at this time, but, really, you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen at this time. You don’t know how many games they’re going to play. You don’t know what they’re going to do. You don’t know what players are going to play.
“For me, yeah, it’s been very unfortunate, but I’m not really going to stress out too much. I’m just going to keep working. I’m still a free agent. You never know what could happen. You get a phone call, something happens, and they’re like ‘we need a guy.’ When they have a clear-cut plan to get this show on the road or whatever we’ll have information on what is going with what my situation is, but right now I’m still a free agent and still working out and throwing and getting ready just in case a call comes.”
Stephens, who turned 26 10 days ago, had been in the Reds organization his entire professional baseball career, shuttling between Triple-A Louisville and Cincinnati in 2017 and 2018. He’s pitched in 26 big-league games with a 4-4 career record, 4.83 ERA and 54 strikeouts in 63 innings.
He spent all of last season in Triple-A, then was DFA’d (baseball talk for the way out) in November for reasons he can only speculate but didn’t care to share publicly. Teams could have claimed him then; they didn’t. The Reds could have offered him back; they didn’t. He elected for free agency.
At the beginning, he was staying sharp with a regular workout routine. A few teams made inquiries, but they mostly were conversations. The White Sox did have a scout in the area who came to watch him throw that curveball, which at one time had the fourth-best spin rate in the majors. The average spin rate on the pitch in the bigs is about 2,530 rpms; Stevens was at 3,146. The MLB’s best is 3,209.
In the meantime, baseball has been talking about reducing the size of the minor leagues, trimming his options even further. Fewer teams, even at the mid-level of professional baseball, mean fewer jobs. There was even some talk of Stephens playing in some independent leagues for exposure and live innings.
“It could have been a possibility, but with it being in the middle of spring training when all this mess started to come about, I wasn’t really thinking about that at that instant,” he said. “I don’t know what would have been. Yes, there’s always a possibility of that because I want to keep playing, but I don’t know.”
When the lockdown came he took the stay-at-home orders seriously. He still tried to throw at home as much as he could, but he admitted it was difficult finding a catcher because he didn’t want to put those guys who were still playing at risk. Now that MLB appears to be moving towards a restart he has gotten back on a regular routine to be ready if/when the call comes.
When play does resume they’re talking about three regional divisions, combining teams from the AL and NL in each and shortening the season to produce a traditional playoff schedule, and playing in ballparks without fans to mitigate future outbreaks of the virus.
Stephens called the three-division approach “really interesting,” but doesn’t think there will be anything “crazy different” additionally happening to the game from a baseball perspective. Playing without fans in the stands, now, that will be awkward at the very least. He watched some of the weekend’s live NASCAR race from Darlington without fans in the stands and called it “weird.”
“Without the fans … people don’t realize how the game feels without hardly anybody there,” he said. “Going through the minor-league levels, some minor-league levels have hardly anybody there and you really see that and feel that and you’re like, ‘man, this stinks. I want to be where I have a little feeling going.’
“You know people are watching on TV, but you also just don’t have anybody there to get your juices going a little bit more. I think that’s going to be a big impact on a lot of people because a lot of players feed off that energy. It’s going to be interesting no matter what.”
If he doesn’t hook on with another club when the game returns he plans to go back to school. Nobody knows when the call will come, but when it does it’ll make an interesting story about the pitcher they plucked out of the classroom to pitch in another major-league game. In the meantime, he’s taking life as it comes with a positive approach.
“It’s life,” he said. “There are more important things out there than just baseball and yourself. If you think the world revolves around you it’s just going to eat at you. There are more important things out there than just yourself. Honestly you’ve just got to deal with it, deal with the punches, take ‘em and then more forward, because if you keep living in the negative past then you’re just not going to get anywhere.”

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