Taylor Widener | RHP
The just turned 23-year-old Widener grew up outside Augusta in Aiken, South Carolina, where he won a variety of All-State and All-Regional honors at South Aiken High School. Baseball America ranked him as the seventh best prospect in the state and the 454th best prospect nationwide for the 2013 draft. Despite that, Widener went undrafted out of high school. He instead followed through on his commitment to South Carolina.
Widener was Jordan Montgomery’s teammate during his freshman year with the Gamecocks — Montgomery was a junior in his draft year that season — and he threw 40.1 innings with a 1.79 ERA and a 38/15 K/BB. He also saw some action as a position player, hitting .191/.283/.191 in 54 plate appearances. That was the end of his time as a hitter. Widener was exclusively a pitcher after that.
Back and knee trouble hampered Widener as a sophomore. He threw 32 innings with a 4.78 ERA and a 44/19 K/BB, and also saved nine games. Widener joined the Lexington County Blowfish of the Coastal Plains League after the season to make up for lost innings and was dominant, throwing 32 innings with a 2.53 ERA and a 43/7 K/BB. Baseball America ranked him the No. 2 prospect in the league.
Widener had more injury problems prior to his junior season. He needed ulnar nerve transposition surgery on his elbow in the fall — that’s what Michael Fulmer had this offseason and Jacob deGrom had last offseason — and once he healed up, he threw 55 innings across nine starts and eight relief appearances for South Carolina. Widener finished the spring with a 4.20 ERA and a 68/16 K/BB.
Baseball America ranked Widener as seventh best prospect in South Carolina and the 258th best prospect in the country prior to the 2016 draft. The Yankees selected him with their 12th round pick (368th overall) and signed him quickly for a straight slot $100,000 bonus.
After signing, the Yankees had Widener jump straight to Short Season Staten Island, where he made six appearances before being bumped up to Low-A Charleston. All told Widener threw 38.1 innings with a 0.47 ERA (1.50 FIP) to go along with great strikeout (44.0%) and walk (5.2%) rates in his pro debut. He was outstanding. After that, the Yankees decided to make Widener a full-time starting pitcher.
Last year, in his first full pro season, Widener spent the entire regular season with High-A Tampa, where he made 27 starts and threw 119.1 innings. He had a 3.39 ERA (3.05 FIP) with 26.4% strikeouts and 10.4% walks. Widener seemed to hit a bit of a wall at midseason, but he finished strong, strong enough that the Yankees moved him up to Double-A Trenton for the postseason. And in his first outing with Trenton, Widener struck out seven in five hitless and walkless innings to complete a combined no-hitter with Justus Sheffield.
At 6-foot-0 and 195 lbs., Widener is on the short side for a right-hander, though he has quality stuff. His fastball sat mostly 90-93 mph at South Carolina before ticking up to 93-95 mph with a few 97s last summer — the Yankees have a thing for getting guys to add velocity, it’s been happening for a while now — and Widener locates the pitch well. (He hit a wall last year and lost the plate, leading to that 10.4% walk rate, but he was better after getting a second wind.)
Widener’s go-to secondary pitch is a hard and occasionally devastating mid-80s slider that is a true wipeout pitch on its best days. He’s still working to gain consistency with it, however. Widener didn’t have much of a changeup when he came to pro ball and the Yankees have been working him to develop the pitch. It was their top priority in Instructional League last fall.
Between the college reliever-to-pro starter thing and being a 6-foot-0 right-hander, Widener draws inevitable comparisons to Chance Adams, though they’re unfair because Adams is more consistent with his slider and has a much better third pitch (curveball). Chance Adams is Chance Adams and Taylor Widener is Taylor Widener. They’re their own people.
Widener is ticketed for Double-A this coming season. He had a good season at High-A last year and he pitched well overall during the Double-A postseason, so yeah, Trenton it is this year. The Yankees had Widener focus on his changeup in Instructional League, which suggests they plan to keep him in the rotation for the time being. A smart move, that is. Widener held his stuff as a starter and there’s no reason to move him back to the bullpen yet. Let him keep working at it.
I like Widener probably more than I should. As long as he stays healthy, I think he has a high likelihood of long-term success as a reliever with a chance to start. Keep in mind the guys the Yankees help add velocity tend to keep adding velocity. The increase usually takes place across two or three years before the pitcher reaches his max. Widener was 93-95 mph last year and could be closer to 95-97 mph this year. That’d be something. Like I said though, I think he has a good chance to carve out a career as a reliever if the whole rotation thing doesn’t work out.