Why Whitley is not on the Fall Stars roster

October 11th, 2019

I saw Howie Kendrick, the Nationals’ hero in Game 5 of the National League Division Series on Wednesday with his series-clinching grand slam, play in the Arizona Fall League back in 2005. Kendrick did what he’s done for most of his career that fall: He hit.

The then-Angels prospect hit .380 in the AFL to finish fourth in the league in batting. He’s gone on to bank out 1722 big league hits en route to compiling a career .294 average in a 14-year career. Back in 2005, he surely would have been chosen to be part of the Fall Stars Game, the AFL’s version of the Futures Game.

There was only one problem. It didn’t exist yet. The Fall Stars Game was introduced in 2006, and the 14th edition of it took place on Saturday. In honor of one of the best prospect days of the year, all three questions for this week’s Pipeline Inbox involve the game or players in the game.

Like with any All-Star Game, there are going to be questions about certain players not making a roster. When it comes to things like the Futures Game and the AFL’s Fall Stars Game, one thing that always has to be considered is the developmental plan from each organization. That’s exactly what came into play with Whitley and a couple of other pitchers from other organizations.

Yes, it would be exciting to see Whitley, the top-ranked pitching prospect in the Fall League (No. 16 in MLB), in the game. And he’s certainly pitched well enough to be in the game (1 ER, 8 H, 2 BB, 20 K and .160 batting average against in 14 1/3 innings). But especially since the right-hander missed so much time in 2019, throwing just 59 2/3 up-and-down innings, the Astros want him to get as many innings as possible and not deviate from his usual routine.

Whitley is scheduled to take his regular turn on Friday, and he’s pitched into the fifth inning in all three of his starts. So a Fall Stars appearance would give an unneeded extra day of rest and limit him to two innings, at most (if he were the starter). And while it would be great for the Fall Stars Game, and baseball in general, to have the best prospects on the field, I think this decision is extremely understandable. Astros fans will just have to wait until 2020 to see Whitley on a big stage.

Lewis definitely had his fair share of issues during the 2019 season, hitting just .236 with a .661 OPS over 517 at-bats, though he did make it to Double-A at age 20. There were a couple of issues at play.

Yes, some were mechanical in nature. Lewis’ right-handed swing features a fairly pronounced leg kick that often got out of control during the season, forcing him off-balance. But a lot of it was approach-oriented. Lewis told me at the start of the Fall League season that he got himself out too often during the 2019 season. He frequently swung at pitches out of the strike zone, a big reason why his strikeout rate jumped from 15.7 percent in 2018 to 21.7 percent (while his walk rate dropped). Stand around the cage during his batting practice sessions this fall and you can hear him talking with his hitting coach about how his focus is on approach and pitch selection.

The leg kick is still there, but he’s been on time much more consistently this spring. It’s still a small sample size, and his K rate is still high, but it’s no coincidence that he’s gone 18-for-48 (.375) in his first 12 games this fall. He has a nine-game hitting streak going and, most importantly, he’s driving the ball more, with six doubles and three homers for a .688 slugging percentage. I’m not worried about the strikeouts, to be honest, or Lewis’ overall offensive upside. A tireless worker and student of the game, he’ll continue to refine his approach so what he’s doing this fall will become the norm in 2020 and beyond.

Whoa, slow down there slugger. Rodriguez is, after all, only 18 years old and hasn’t played above Class A Advanced ball. He only has 328 at-bats in the United States under his belt after missing time with a broken hand this year, not counting his Fall League numbers. Sure, he’s hitting .304/.400/.391 in 13 games, brushing off a slow start with Peoria, and he hasn’t even tapped into his ridiculous raw power in the AFL just yet. And it’s true, he’s done all that as the youngest player in the league and will be one of the most exciting players on the field at the Fall Stars Game. His combination of bat speed and advanced approach at the plate that well belies his years has me convinced he’ll be in our top 10 at some point in the near future, prospect-wise. But can we wait until he gets to Double-A at least before starting to engrave his plaque, please? I’ve seen too many teen phenoms who seem like can’t miss types not quite live up to those expectations.

With all that said, I’ll say second ballot.