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Whitley leads crop of Astros prospects on fast track

MLB.com @JonathanMayo

In an ideal player development world, every prospect earns, and gets, an in-season promotion up a level. That prospect Shangri-La doesn't happen very often, but in the Astros' farm system in 2017, it's been pretty close.

The most recent example of this was the movement of two talented young arms up to Double-A Corpus Christi, No. 2 prospect Forrest Whitley and No. 10 Cionel Perez. Perez, the 21-year-old Cuban lefty, had a rough introduction to the Texas League on Wednesday. Whitley, the Astros' first-round pick in 2016, is just 19 and will make his debut at the level on Thursday.

In an ideal player development world, every prospect earns, and gets, an in-season promotion up a level. That prospect Shangri-La doesn't happen very often, but in the Astros' farm system in 2017, it's been pretty close.

The most recent example of this was the movement of two talented young arms up to Double-A Corpus Christi, No. 2 prospect Forrest Whitley and No. 10 Cionel Perez. Perez, the 21-year-old Cuban lefty, had a rough introduction to the Texas League on Wednesday. Whitley, the Astros' first-round pick in 2016, is just 19 and will make his debut at the level on Thursday.

Ranked No. 40 on the Top 100 list, Whitley is rapidly becoming one of the best right-handed pitching prospects in the game. The 6-foot-7 hurler from the San Antonio prep ranks had already jumped onto the fast track by earning a bump up from the Class A Midwest League up to the Class A Advanced Carolina League after just 12 appearances. Seven outings later, Whitley will be finishing the year in the upper levels of the system, something few high school pitching draftees have done in their first full season.

"It's definitely a rare thing to see a high school drafted pitcher, or hitter for that matter, make it to Double-A in his first full season," said Mike Elias, the Astros' assistant general manager for scouting and player development. "We were very careful about the decision to promote him. Once we realized that was the level he was going to start at next season, we wanted to give him a taste of it."

Video: Top Prospects: Forrest Whitley, RHP, Astros

There's little question Whitley has pitched well enough to earn the aggressive moves. Across two levels, he's struck out better than 13.5-per-nine while walking just 3.5. Whitley has held hitters to a .243 batting average against. All of those numbers actually improved once he was up in the Carolina League.

"The success he had, controlling the strike zone well for a 19-year-old, striking out batters at a great rate [has been impressive]," Elias said. "His maturity and his work ethic, his coaches rave about him. He has a starting pitcher's profile with several pitches that grade above average and the ability to use them.

"We don't have any expectations about how he might perform at that level, knowing what the challenge is. The experience of facing more talented, veteran hitters will be great for his development."

It also puts Whitley on a much faster track, one that pitchers like Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke jumped on, reaching Double-A as teenagers in their first full season of pro ball. The Astros don't want to put that kind of pressure on Whitley, but they know he is on the path to being a pretty special part of their rotation.

"It's nice to see. The success he's had at such a young age is great, but everyone is different," Elias said. "It's hard to look at someone else's career and think it applies to someone today. He deserves the promotion and we'll see what happens. He's very talented. He has the potential to lead our rotation one day and possibly in the near future."

Whitley's promotion has been far from the exception in the Astros' system, it's been the rule. Perez has pitched across three levels this season. They're joining 19-year-old Franklin Perez in Corpus Christi's rotation as the organization's No. 3 prospect has now made five appearances in Double-A after dominating with Buies Creek to start the year.

Video: Top Prospects: Franklin Perez, RHP, Astros

And it hasn't just been arms. Top prospect and outfielder Kyle Tucker made it up to Double-A at age 20 and first baseman Yordan Alvarez (No. 6) moved up to Buies Creek before he turned 20. The Astros' system is flush with prospects, they are young for their level overall while reaching the upper levels, meaning they will be knocking on the door ahead of schedule.

"It's been great to watch this year," Elias said. "We're fortunate in this farm system to have these very young, very talented prospects who perform, and when we challenge them, they keep performing. That's a testament to our scouting departments and our coaching staffs. When we have a prospect who is performing, we want to challenge them. The reason we've done it is we feel they can handle it."

This migration upwards isn't happening in the middle of a rebuild, either. This isn't an organization pushing prospects up out of desperation or severe need. The Astros have the best record in the American League currently, so what's happening below is all about sustaining, not rebooting.

"It's a nice spot to be in, success in the big leagues while having a robust farm system and success in the Minor Leagues," Elias said. "There was a lot of work that went into that. This was the vision owner Jim Crane and general manager Jeff Luhnow had when they took over the franchise. It involved several years of focusing on the amateur market. We've been able to maintain success while also competing in the big leagues.

"That will continue to be a challenge as we move forward. Our Draft picks get lower, our pool gets smaller, but we have talented scouts and front-office people who will help us navigate those challenges. We hope we can keep it going. We know it's going to be hard."

Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLBPipeline.com. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanMayo and Facebook, and listen to him on the weekly Pipeline Podcast.

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