Going into the 2022 season, the Diamondbacks are poised open up the season with Madison Bumgarner, Zac Gallen, Merrill Kelly, and the recently signed Zach Davies in their starting rotation. That leaves Luke Weaver, Tyler Gilbert, and Corbin Martin to try compete for the #5 starter job. Going into Spring, Weaver likely had the slight edge with a more proven track record as a starter but I think Gilbert’s performances have closed the gap enough to make it a tough decision for manager Torey Lovullo.
What hurts Weaver’s chance of remaining as a starter are his lesser durability in starts as well as his inability to stay healthy for a season. The first is his stuff tends to start falling off around 70 pitches and at best he might be able to get to 85 pitches before needing to be pulled. On a day he’s not efficient at getting outs, that’s a 4-inning start at most. While the length for a starter continues to decrease, most teams aren’t built to have any of their starters struggle to deliver more than 12 outs. The second issue is about his arm health, as he’s dealt with lengthy shoulder and elbow issues that’s limited him to 12 starts in 2019 and 13 in 2021. That’s the bigger problem as you want to have more reliable arms in your rotation if performance is not the issue.
In terms of actual ability, I do think Weaver has the best combination of upside and track record of performance as a starter than his competition. He has a track record of solid run prevention performances, putting up ERA+ of 152 and 99 in 2019 and 2021. Conversely his competition are guys who haven’t quite established himself in the majors although Gilbert’s run to close the 2021 season was encouraging to some degree. Corbin Martin hasn’t been able to get results in the majors yet, with injuries more or less stalling him out for the past three seasons. With a lesser track record and similar problems to Weaver, I don’t see Martin factoring into the rotation mix next week.
Ideally we see Weaver bounce back and pitch somewhere between 120-140 innings out of the rotation at around league average run prevention (~4.25 ERA) numbers. That would buy the organization more time so they don’t rush pitching prospects such as Ryne Nelson and Tommy Henry and likely secure Weaver’s spot on the 2023 roster. The alternative is Weaver flames out as a starter in 2022 and winds up as a non-tender candidate with no clear role for 2023 and a sizeable raise in his final year of arbitration. Additionally, they could offer an extension that keeps him around an extra year or two to buy the organization some time. With Weaver’s injury history and still relatively young age, I could see him taking a small guarantee now and give the team more time to decide what to do moving forward.
Should Weaver lose his rotation spot to start the season, the team needs to figure out quickly if he can transition into the back-end of the pen. This wouldn’t be the first time they did this with a high ceiling starter who’s development stalled with this current front office, as Archie Bradley did the same in 2017. As a reliever, Weaver can go max effort and could see more upper 90s heat and that wipeout change-up while limiting his usage of the cutter and curveball. A successful transition to the back-end of the bullpen would make his potential 2023 salary much more palatable to the team.