Whitley closing in on big league opportunity

March 3rd, 2021

The sweltering summer heat and coastal humidity of Corpus Christi, Texas, can drive anyone to work harder to escape it. That held true for pitcher , who was among a group of about 60 Astros players that spent last summer sweating in the sun with the hopes of being called up to make the trip to the air-conditioned comfort of Minute Maid Park.

With expanded rosters and a rash of injuries, there was no shortage of opportunities in Houston during 2020, but not for Whitley. He suffered a forearm strain working out with the Astros prior to the start of last year’s shortened season and spent August and September at the alternate training site. Meanwhile, 10 other pitchers got called up to make their Major League debuts for Houston.

“It definitely gets you a little bit jealous when you see your friends out there competing and you're hurt and there's nothing you can do about it,” Whitley said. “But at the same time, I'm also extremely happy and proud of those guys because a lot of those guys worked extremely hard to get to that position. That being said, I just look forward to joining them this year.”

This could be a make-or-break year for the 23-year-old former first-round Draft pick, who likely would have been in the big leagues last year had he stayed healthy. He’s the Astros’ lone representative on the MLB Pipeline Top 100 (No. 41), though his stock has fallen the last two years. Whitley, added to the team’s 40-man roster this winter, says he’s healthy and ready to compete.

“It’s definitely something where I feel one step closer,” Whitley said. “I’m just making sure I'm giving them every reason to believe in me.”

Whitley reached Double-A in his first year in professional baseball in 2017 before his career went sideways:

2018: Whitley was suspended 50 games without pay for a violation of the Minor League drug prevention and treatment program in February. He suffered a pair of oblique injuries and appeared in only 8 for Double-A Corpus Christi, posting a 3.76 ERA with 34 strikeouts in 26 1/3 innings. He dazzled in the Arizona Fall League with 36 strikeouts in 26 innings.

2019: Whitley went a combined 3-7 with a 7.99 ERA, 44 walks and 86 strikeouts in four levels. He began the year at Triple-A Round Rock and had a 12.21 ERA in eight games (five starts) before being placed on the injured list with shoulder fatigue. The Astros sent him back to the Gulf Coast League in July and he moved up to Class A Advanced Fayetteville before finishing the year with Double-A Corpus Christi. A second consecutive strong performance (2.88 ERA) at the AFL followed.

2020: Whitley spent the entire 2020 season working out at the team’s alternate training site in Corpus Christi, but the absence of Minor League games meant he didn’t log some much-needed innings. Whitley was shut down last August while dealing with a forearm strain he had suffered in Summer Camp in Houston.

“I feel like the last three years, every year is just kind of run into the most important year of my life so I’m just trying not to focus too much on it and have fun with the game,” he said.

Considering the Astros’ lack of starting pitching depth in 2021, Whitley could play into the team’s plans at the big league level.

“He came into camp in great shape,” Astros general manager James Click said. “He’s doing really well in terms of getting his work in and it’s just great to see him letting it go and throwing free and easy, which to all us says a lot about how his arm feels. He’s out there and he’s getting after it. The sky’s the limit for this kid and has been for a long time. We’re hoping to try to find a way to help put it all together.”

The club will be counting on 4/5ths of its starting rotation -- , , and -- to approach or surpass career highs in innings pitched this year, though Valdez's status is in question after he fractured his left ring finger on Tuesday. Houston will likely use at least 10 starting pitchers at any point this year, which opens a window for Whitley.

“Ideally, for me, I can see myself in a healthy season going anywhere in the range of 140 to 160 innings,” he said. “But that's going to be a whole other thing with the Astros and seeing how they feel. I'm obviously looking forward to working with them on that and hopefully I can achieve that goal. That’s a very big goal of mine.”