HOUSTON -- Forrest Whitley viewed the chance to return to the mound at Minute Maid Park for the first time in more than a year, with Astros manager Dusty Baker and pitching coach Brent Strom watching as closely as they could in the age of social distancing, as a chance
HOUSTON -- Forrest Whitley viewed the chance to return to the mound at Minute Maid Park for the first time in more than a year, with Astros manager Dusty Baker and pitching coach Brent Strom watching as closely as they could in the age of social distancing, as a chance to impress.
Whitley, the Astros’ top-ranked prospect by MLB Pipeline (No. 19 overall), did just that during his 25-pitch live batting practice session Wednesday afternoon at Summer Camp. The team’s first-round pick in the 2016 MLB Draft, Whitley is in the Astros’ 56-player pool this season and is hoping to take a big leap in his career in 2020, even without the benefit of Minor League games.
“This was absolutely a big step forward for me, much bigger than the previous steps the last couple of years, so I’m very, very happy with it,” Whitley said after throwing a mixture of pitches against Garrett Stubbs, Myles Straw and Kyle Tucker. The 6-foot-7 right-hander has been among the two dozen or so players working out at the University of Houston since Friday.
“That’s the best I’ve seen him,” Baker said. “He told me he’s been working. I was very impressed with him.”
While his weight remains fluid, Whitley believes he has his mechanics finally under control. He reported to spring camp in February at around 236 pounds, saying at the time he wanted a bigger frame to remain stronger throughout the season. He checked in at a svelte 203 pounds Wednesday, which didn’t go unnoticed.
“He was looking skinny,” Baker said. “I told him that. I said, 'Hey, sometimes you’ve got to eat a little bit.’ I was impressed with his focus and concentration. He really wants to make this team sooner rather than later.”
Whitley, 22, won’t make the Opening Day roster in 2020, considering the Astros have some prospects closer to the big leagues and the wobbly numbers Whitley posted a year ago.
After missing 50 games following a suspension and then suffering a pair of oblique injuries in 2018, Whitley’s 2019 didn’t go much smoother. He went a combined 3-7 with a 7.99 ERA, 44 walks and 86 strikeouts over four levels last year. 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 at the Arizona Fall League (2.88 ERA) followed, but he called 2019 the first on-field baseball adversity he’s faced in his life.
“Everything I’ve gone through the last four or five years and the entirety of my professional career has definitely shaped somebody that I wouldn’t have envisioned back in 2015, 2016,” Whitley said. “I’m really happy with where I’m at mentally and physically.”
After tinkering with his mechanics in the spring, which included studying some video from his high school days in San Antonio, Texas, Whitley says his mechanics are “pretty lined up.” On Wednesday, he was throwing his slider and curveball for a strike and putting his changeup where he wanted it.
“I’m exactly where I wanted to be, to be completely honest with you,” he said. “Mechanically, I’m not thinking about too much right now, just driving down the mound and letting it go. Just being athletic off the rubber and let that thing go.”
With the Minor League season canceled, Whitley will spend the summer in the Astros’ player pool, which will shift workouts to Corpus Christi, Texas, from UH when the regular season starts July 24. There won’t be game results to hang his hat on, but Whitley will continue to search for consistency and look to open eyes any chance he gets. Like he did Wednesday.
“I think in a normal Spring Training setting, everybody wants to tell you to be calm, don’t try to blow it out, don’t try to impress people,” he said. “But in this type of situation, where we’re normally in the middle of a season post All-Star break, every ball that I throw, everything that I do, every move that I make is being watched.
"It’s go time. I treated that 20-pitch live BP like it was Game 7 of the World Series, and I think that’s how I should treat everything going forward.”
Brian McTaggart has covered the Astros since 2004, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter.