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AFL a redemption opportunity for Whitley

MLB.com @JimCallisMLB

Forrest Whitley wanted to pitch in October this year. The 17th overall pick in the 2016 Draft had a stunningly successful 2017 season, averaging 13.9 strikeouts per nine innings while joining Zack Greinke, Chad Billingsley, Clayton Kershaw and Dylan Bundy as the only prep first-round arms this century to advance to Double-A in their first full pro season.

But Whitley's encore in 2018 didn't unfold as he hoped. The Astros right-hander missed the start of the season after getting hit with a 50-game suspension in February for violating the Minor League drug program, then he got sidelined twice after he returned to the mound with minor oblique and lat injuries. All told, he made just eight starts and worked just 26 1/3 innings.

Forrest Whitley wanted to pitch in October this year. The 17th overall pick in the 2016 Draft had a stunningly successful 2017 season, averaging 13.9 strikeouts per nine innings while joining Zack Greinke, Chad Billingsley, Clayton Kershaw and Dylan Bundy as the only prep first-round arms this century to advance to Double-A in their first full pro season.

But Whitley's encore in 2018 didn't unfold as he hoped. The Astros right-hander missed the start of the season after getting hit with a 50-game suspension in February for violating the Minor League drug program, then he got sidelined twice after he returned to the mound with minor oblique and lat injuries. All told, he made just eight starts and worked just 26 1/3 innings.

Arizona Fall League overviews for all 30 teams

So Whitley is soaking up more innings in October. Instead of contributing to another postseason run in Houston, however, he's getting some much-needed work with the Arizona Fall League's Scottsdale Scorpions. Rather than dwelling on what might have been, he's focusing on the opportunity he has to impress the Astros.

"I know the history of this league, I know all the great players who have come here and the pretty wild percentage of players who come here that end up playing in the big leagues," Whitley said. "And I know all of the lineups in this league are outstanding lineups, so it's going to be a really good test. I was excited if I were able to do well here, then maybe that would help me out next year going into camp, hopefully getting a roster spot."

The top-rated pitcher on MLB Pipeline's Top 100 Prospects list and ranked No. 8 overall, Whitley has lived up to that billing in the Fall League. He struck out the first seven batters he faced in his first start for Scottsdale, and he has fanned 19 in 12 innings while limiting opponents to a .163 average.

Whitley, 21, has little left to prove before he's ready for Houston. He can miss bats with four pitches: a mid-90s fastball with natural cut, a pair of power breaking balls in a 12-to-6 curveball and a late-biting slider, and a changeup with fade and depth. His biggest need is to refine his command, and he also needs to stay healthy and out of trouble.

While his second full pro season didn't go nearly as smooth as his first, Whitley said he tried to learn from it.

"There was a lot of adversity, but I felt like I handled it pretty well, mentally," he said. "Just get back to where I needed to be, get healthy, just continue to pitch well. A couple of things were self-inflicted, but a lot were not, so just kind of take it for what it was and just move on.

"At the end of the day, it was my fault and I'm going to have to accept that. But you've got to focus on what's important here, and that's obviously my career. It helped me out in the long run just knowing you've got to stay focused, you have to tunnel vision on one thing and right now, that's getting to the big leagues."

Astros hitters in the Fall League

Ronnie Dawson, OF
Known most for his power when the Astros made him a second-round pick from Ohio State in 2016, Dawson has lost weight and significantly improved his speed since turning pro. He hit .258/.333/.428 with 16 homers and 35 steals this year between high Class A and Double-A.

Drew Ferguson, OF
An AFL replacement for Myles Straw, who made Houston's postseason roster, Ferguson was a 19th-round choice out of Belmont in 2015 and has average tools across the board. He battled a wrist injury in 2018 and batted .304/.432/.443, mostly in Triple-A.

Abraham Toro-Hernandez, RHP
A product of the Astros' extensive scouting of Oklahoma junior colleges, Hernandez was a 2016 fifth-rounder out of Seminole State JC. He's a switch-hitter with solid raw power and plus arm strength, and he hit .247/.345/.435 with 16 homers between Class A Advanced and Double-A.

Astros pitchers in the Fall League

J.B. Bukauskas, RHP
The 15th overall pick in the 2017 Draft out of North Carolina, Bukauskas was hampered by back issues related to a Spring Training car accident for much of his first full pro season. He did post a 2.14 ERA, .199 opponent average and 71 strikeouts in 59 innings at five levels, showing a mid-90s fastball and a mid-80s slider that are plus-plus offerings at their best.

Erasmo Pinales, RHP
Signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2013, Pinales has some of the best pure stuff in the system: a fastball that reaches 97 mph with running and rising action, a short slider and hard curveball that are plus pitches at times and a solid changeup. He's still figuring out command and control, which is why he had a 5.17 ERA while striking out 72 in 55 2/3 relief innings in Double-A.

Trent Thornton, RHP
A Tar Heels teammate of Bukauskas in 2015, when he was a fifth-round selection, Thornton has a funky delivery that adds deception to an arsenal that includes a 93-95-mph fastball and solid curveball and slider. He compiled a 4.42 ERA with a 122/31 K/BB ratio in 124 1/3 Triple-A innings.

Jim Callis is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow @jimcallisMLB on Twitter. Listen to him on the weekly Pipeline Podcast.

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