Is '23 the year Whitley finally breaks through for Astros?

February 20th, 2023

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Is this the year it finally all comes together for Astros prospect Forrest Whitley? No one would like an answer to that question more than Whitley, who’s back in Major League camp this year hoping to re-establish himself as a top prospect.

Whitley, the 6-foot-7-inch right-hander who was Houston’s first-round pick in the 2016 MLB Draft, has thrown only 237 innings in his Minor League career thanks to a suspension, a pandemic and a series of injuries, including Tommy John surgery two years ago. After the 2020 season was lost because of COVID-19, he missed all of 2021 following elbow surgery.

Last year, he returned to action with three rehab starts at the lower levels of the Minor Leagues before finishing the season at Triple-A Sugar Land. He admitted his expectations “weren’t super high,” and he threw in 13 games, making 11 starts, and posted a 6.53 ERA in 40 innings. Whitley’s season ended when he was scratched prior to a start in September when he felt pain in the back of his shoulder.

“I think it would have been something if it was the middle of the season. I would have taken a week off and then started throwing again and then been back two or three weeks [later],” Whitley said. “But since it was the end of the season, [I] just decided to put the ball down from there.”

Whitley is only 25 years old and remains on Houston’s 40-man roster, a sign of his value to the club. He enters the season as the team’s No. 10-ranked prospect by MLB Pipeline, which is down five spots from 2022. Prior to the 2021 season, he was ranked as the third-best right-hander in the Minor Leagues. The expectations were high, and Whitley admits he didn’t handle it very well.

“I’ve definitely grown as a person for that stuff that I had to go through,” he said. “I feel like the expectations were fair. … I feel like I've evolved so much. … You see the media side of it, and it's like generally pretty negative now, but it used to be so overwhelmingly positive and that was a little bit of a culture shock for me mentally, at first. You get over it and just keep throwing the ball.”

In 2019, Whitley posted a 7.99 ERA in four Minor League levels, including a 12.21 ERA with Triple-A Round Rock before being placed on the injured list with shoulder fatigue. In 2018, he was suspended 50 games for a violation of the Minor League drug prevention and treatment program and sustained two oblique injuries. He appeared in 23 games across three levels in ‘17, posting a 2.92 ERA with 143 strikeouts in 92 1/3 innings.

“It’s been quite the ride, especially the last three years, all the injuries and the adversity and stuff really shaped me into a much different person,” he said. “I'm definitely grateful for all those opportunities to grow into the person that I am and I’m happy about that.”

Whitley admits his frustrations are still with him today, but that’s just human nature. He tries to keep what he calls a “solid base,” which has meant buying a house in the Houston area and getting engaged. Life is great, outside of what he calls the “turbulent baseball stuff.”

“I had some pretty clear-cut goals going into the offseason,” he said. “I knew I was doing some things wrong in the middle of [last] season or once I got back from my TJ rehab, some arm-action things that just weren't very clean. ... And then once the offseason came, hashed things out in the first six weeks and then started crushing bullpens and just tried to get a ton of skill acquisition and get off the mound as much as possible. And I feel very, very comfortable out there.”

Whitley should begin the season in the rotation with Sugar Land, which is only 23 miles from Minute Maid Park. The distance between Constellation Field and Minute Maid Park has seemed much further for Whitley, who will once again try to close the gap this year.

“I feel like I’ve kind of been at fulcrum point the past four years,” he said. “I'm just kind of ready to break that barrier. Finally healthy … first healthy spring in a while. Just kind of go out there and show them what I got and show them the work I put in this offseason.”