Editor's Note: Red Baron has compiled this year's top prospects in three parts, which can be found by clicking on Part I, Part II, and Part III. The post below is a portion of those massive posts, focusing in on a single prospect at a time, which should make a search of any one prospect easier to find. All of our 2016 prospect coverage and write-ups can be found at the Viva El Birdos 2016 Prospects hub.
#5: Luke Weaver, RHP
Opening Day 2016 Age: 22
2015 Level: High A Palm Beach, Arizona Fall League
Relevant Numbers: 1.62 ERA/2.28 FIP (PB), 4.5% BB rate (PB), 5.3% BB (AFL), 20.7 K rate (PB)
So, what's so great about this guy?
The 2014 draft was an interesting one for the Cardinals, as in Dan Kantrovitz's last year running the draft the club chose five right-handed pitchers in a row to begin the draft, six pitchers overall before taking Darren Seferina in the fifth round, and ultimately using seven of the twelve picks they had in the top ten rounds on arms of one stripe or another.
It was not my favourite strategy, certainly, but it's also one that appears to be bearing fruit so far. We've already had one pitcher (Ronnie Williams, taken in the second round), appear in the top ten, with another (Austin Gomber, fourth round), just missing out on a spot in the top 20. Lefty strikeout artist Sasha Kuebel and hard-throwing cutter specialist Daniel Poncedeleon were both considered for the list, ultimately falling just short. And one of my personal favourites, Bryan Dobzanski, the former high school wrestling champ turned sinkerballer extraordinaire, has seen little time in proper games, but what action he has seen has been remarkably productive, and he's my best bet to jump onto this list next year, as it would seem he's ready to move up beyond complex ball and start pitching in earnest. I felt at the time of the draft the Cardinals overinvested in pitching, but the pitching they chose to invest in has, by and large, looked to be worth investing in so far. (Mostly.)
And now, coming into the top five, we have two more pitchers from the very top of the 2014 draft class to go, which speaks very well for the productivity of that year's crop. The first is Luke Weaver, the Cards' first-round pick that year, taken 27th overall out of Florida State. The other we'll get to in just a few moments.
At the time of the Weaver selection, I was very down on the pick. I much preferred Foster Griffin, a high-school lefty taken by the Royals one pick later who made it into full-season ball this year but has had mixed results so far, or Braxton Davidson, a high-school OF/1B type taken by the Braves at pick 32, who has shown iffy contact skills in pro ball, but also remarkable patience and above-average production overall. Weaver, I felt, was a huge injury risk due to an ugly delivery, and lacked the pure ceiling to push the risk/reward equation in favour of taking the player for me.
Since then, I've had little reason to change my mind on the risk aspect, as Weaver missed time early this season with vaguely-reported 'arm soreness', though to his credit he did end up throwing over 100 innings at Palm Beach this year, as well as nearly 20 more in the AFL at the end of a long first professional season.
On the performance side of things, however, Weaver has done his best to justify his draft slot and force me to at least take a second look at him. He was extraordinarily efficient in High A this year, showing the kind of pinpoint command of the zone that one rarely expects even from a college draftee, as well as maintaining his reputation for having one of the best changeups in the minors, full stop. Sub-5% walk rates, even in the minor leagues, tend to get noticed pretty quickly. The fact Weaver's walk rate barely ticked up at all when he headed off to Arizona is further proof of both his tremendous control and absolute fearlessness, even when facing the best the minors have to offer, in a decidedly hitter-friendly environment.
Which, actually, brings us to the negative hidden in Weaver's numbers. In the brutal power-suppressing environs of the FSL, he challenged hitters, attacking them mercilessly with his fastball/change combo and simply daring them to try and hurt him. We saw how hard it can be to actually do that damage in Florida when we looked at Anthony Garcia's Palm Beach numbers in part two of this list, and the results for FSL hitters as a whole when facing Weaver were pretty similar. He allowed only two home runs all season, covering 105.1 innings pitched. Part of that, of course, has to be to his credit, as he got hitters to make weak contact. However, there's also the other, more concerning side.
In the Arizona Fall League, facing nearly the polar opposite conditions in terms of hitting environment, Weaver continued to pound the zone fearlessly. Unfortunately for him, things didn't work out nearly so well, as he allowed three home runs in just 19.1 innings, en route to a 4.67 FIP. We should adjust expectations a bit, considering it was the end of a long season, Weaver's first in professional ball no less, and he was probably a little worn down. Still, seeing such a stark contrast in results, while the approach appeared to have been exactly the same, might make one worry Weaver was at least partially a product of pitching in an extreme run-suppressing environment, and those numbers are going to change dramatically as he moves up to the Texas League unless he alters his approach.
Nonetheless, Weaver's first professional season was a rousing success, as he brushed up against 125 innings and looked damned good doing it most of the way. The outlook is still cloudy for me, as the mechanics and park-related concerns are both significant, I believe, but for now it looks like Weaver is another success story for the Cards' scouting department.
As for the stuff, Weaver pairs a lively, moving fastball in the 92-93 range that will occasionally range up into the mid-90s with a devastating changeup that has both deception and movement. He sells it beautifully with his arm speed, and then the ball just doesn't get there. It's good enough he can lean on it facing either opposite- or same-handed hitters, and rarely get beaten. Both he and Ronnie Williams have well above-average changes to my eye, with Weaver's having an edge right now, due to simply being more consistent.
At the time of the draft, Weaver's real lack of a breaking ball was a concern, as he had tried both a slider and cutter in college, with neither pitch really being all that effective. A year and a half after being drafted, there's still concerns about the breaking ball, although in general Weaver's switch to a curve at the behest of the club has been mostly positive. Even so, the pitch only flashes average occasionally, and half the time still looks more like a loopy slider. For as much aptitude and touch as Weaver possesses for changing speeds and slipping the ball, he has shown a real lack of ability to spin it.
If I'm looking into my crystal ball and predicting the best use of Weaver in the future -- not the most likely, but what I believe is the best -- I think a switch to relief is still the path that will lead to his greatest success. His aggressiveness within the zone, two 55 or better pitches but lack of a third solid offering, and high-risk arm action all say to me he could be a dynamic reliever, with the FB/CH combo perhaps playing up even more in short stints, while covering for his weaknesses. Both of my comps for him reflect this, in fact.
Player Comp: Hmm, let's see...fastball with good movement in the low-90s, occasionally ranging higher, dominant changeup, and a real lack of luck spinning a breaking ball. Optimistically, looking at a guy who managed a very nice career with those strengths and weaknesses, Tyler Clippard comes to mind. On the other hand, a player I feel is maybe even a better comp but shows how things can fail to work out so well, we have Anthony Reyes, whose name I hesitate to invoke, but is really a remarkable comparison to my mind.
via Eric Longenhagen: