Taylor Widener was originally acquired by the Diamondbacks in the three-team trade that also brought Steven Souza Jr. to Arizona. After a breakout 2018 campaign with the team’s AA affiliate, Widener was only a good couple of months away from being getting an opportunity to contribute in the MLB rotation. That didn’t happen as Widener got crushed thanks to the combination of Reno’s pitcher-killing environment and AAA teams adopting the gopher ball. That year had everyone recalibrating expectations entering 2020, as most didn’t think he was as good as he was in AA and as bad as he was in AAA.
Despite the shaky year in AAA, the D-backs elected to add him to the 40-man roster in order to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft. Going into Spring however, Widener was likely on the outside looking in for a roster spot. At the start of the year, Widener was the organization 12th best prospect according to MLB Pipeline and 23rd according to Fangraphs. After the COVID outbreak leading to expanded rosters and Mike Leake opting out of the season, a path to the roster opened up. So far, he’s taken advantage of that opportunity, posting a 3.65 ERA/6.23 FIP/4.81 xFIP in 12 1⁄3 innings to start his career. The advanced metrics don’t paint a rosy picture thanks to a 27.3% HR/FB rate and a 17.3% walk rate, but most of the damage has come from two outings against the Padres that account for all the runs he’s allowed on the season.
Getting a more in-depth look at his repertoire, he has a starter-level repertoire as a potential middle of the rotation arm. He’s got a plus fastball, averaging just under 95 MPH with a spin rate averaging around 2400 RPM, which would put him around the 70th percentile in that metric. Batters have had a tough time picking up his 4-seamer, as batters are swinging through the pitch or hitting lazy fly balls to the outfield. His change-up has developed into an out-pitch, showing some late fade and about 9 MPH slower than the fastball. His slider is a distant third pitch, showing average movement with below-average spin, which makes it more or less only usable against right-handed batters. It was a pitch that was dominant for him in AA and disappeared in AAA. Turning that pitch into an effective pitch against lefties, throwing it on the back foot or back door, will be the difference between starting and relieving in the majors.
Here are some examples of the type of upside he brings to the table:
Taylor Widener needs to start getting talked about more - I think he has the potential to have one of the most dominant FBs in baseball once he starts locating it up in the zone more often— (@eccentricladdie) August 14, 2020
This pitch: 97.5 MPH, 20.2 inches of vertical break, 4.9 ft relHeight pic.twitter.com/DTVdFXrp5r
This was a wicked back-foot slider to get Jurickson Profar swinging. This pitch looked like a strike for so long and it only dropped off the table after Profar had already committed, a great pitch from an otherwise shaky outing by Taylor Widener. #Dbacks #RattleOn pic.twitter.com/8N8xM2UjUl— Joe Jacquez (@joejacquezaz) August 16, 2020
The biggest issue is command, as Widener is still more of a thrower than a pitcher at the current stage of his career. With the fastball he has, Widener should be more aggressive in the upper third of the zone while using his slider and change-up to change speeds and eye levels on hitters. With less movement on his pitches, command becomes more important because the margin of error is less. With a fastball that hits 95 and jumps on hitters quicker than usual, he should be able to generate some bad swings on his off-speed deliveries. His current split is about 63/21/15 on FB/SL/CH, which works out pretty well considering his fastball is his only plus offering and the usage of his slider and change-up depend more on the handedness of the hitter he faces.
The question for Widener will be if he can develop into a key role on the team for the foreseeable future. The swing and miss stuff plays up well into a late-inning bullpen role or even a multi-inning bridge role from starter to back-end of the pen, but command is the one thing that will prevent him from being a starter. With the Diamondbacks potentially losing two starters in the off-season, the team certainly will need to get a larger sample of what Widener can do at this level. Starter or not, I see Widener getting at least a trial run into an important role on the team in the next few years.