Astros: How will disrupted season affect Forrest Whitley?

Houston Astros, Forrest Whitley (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
Houston Astros, Forrest Whitley (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images) /

The disrupted MLB season will have an impact on Houston Astros top prospect Forrest Whitley.

There’s been plenty of talk surrounding how the COVID-19 pandemic will affect the game of baseball. We talk about how it’ll affect both fans and franchises, as well as players when it comes to money and service time. But what about player development? The Houston Astros and Forrest Whitley are keeping an eye on that.

Whitley, of course, is the organization’s consensus top prospect. He’s been highly touted ever since the team drafted him in the first round of the 2016 MLB draft out of Alamo Heights High School in San Antonio. The 6-foot-7-inch right-hander has the raw talent to become a legitimate MLB ace, but it hasn’t been smooth sailing for the young phenom.

He pitched to a 2.83 ERA across three minor league levels in his first full professional season in 2017, advancing all the way to Double-A. He looked like a star in the making, but the last two seasons have not been kind to him.

He was limited to just eight starts in 2018 thanks to a couple of nagging injuries and a 50-game suspension for violating the minor league drug policy. His 2019 season saw him completely lose his command as the team shut him down for a while after he was lit up to the tune of a 12.21 ERA 24.1 innings in Triple-A. He looked much better in the Arizona Fall League, so the hope was that he had gotten back on track.

This Season is Key

Whitley was with the major league team in Spring Training and pitched in four games, giving up five runs on six hits in six innings, walking three and striking out seven. It’s an incredibly small sample, and he was highly unlikely to make the team regardless of how well he pitched. The real test would be how he fared in the minors once the regular season got underway.

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Now, of course, that will have to wait. We still don’t know when the season will start, or even if it will happen. We don’t know how the pandemic will affect the minor league season specifically or how many games the game’s top prospects will be able to play this year. This leaves Whitley’s status in question.

He’s still just 22 years old, so he’s far from being a bust. He has plenty of time to realize his potential, and there’s plenty of that. His arsenal consists of a mid-90s fastball that he can cut or sink, an excellent changeup, and a slider and curve that both feature high spin rates. MLB’s scouting report notes that his stuff is so good that he can be a star even with average command.

But he needs to get out there and pitch in real games, and the delayed season isn’t doing him any good. Of course we all know it’s what’s best for society right now, but in terms of Whitley’s development and eventual ascension to the big leagues, this time off comes at an inopportune moment. He needs to put the past two years behind him.

He also hasn’t pitched many innings the past two seasons, so he needs a full year to get himself acclimated to pitching a full workload again. Once he does reach the majors, he’ll need to have the durability to withstand a complete season.

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If he pitches well once the season starts, it’s possible the Astros could bring him up as a late-season call-up when (or if) rosters expand. Otherwise, the future star’s arrival could be delayed until at least 2021 if he’s not able to get enough seasoning in the minors this year.