Astros: Forrest Whitley may need Tommy John surgery

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

Houston Astros top prospect Forrest Whitley may need Tommy John surgery.

The Houston Astros are still waiting on the final prognosis for Framber Valdez and his fractured ring finger, but the injury bug already seems to have bitten again. FOX 26’s Mark Berman is reporting that it has been recommended that top prospect Forrest Whitley have Tommy John surgery, though the pitcher is seeking a second opinion.

The Houston Chronicle’s Chandler Rome is reporting that Whitley has been diagnosed with a right UCL sprain. The 23-year-old also dealt with a forearm issue in 2020 as well as several other injuries over the past few years, but of course we were all hopeful that he could finally put together a full season in 2021.

We started to worry on Saturday when manager Dusty Baker said Whitley “came up sore” after throwing a simulated game. Fans had high hopes for him to possibly make his major league debut this season given the team’s general lack of starting pitching depth, but it looks like those hopes are in serious peril.

There has been no shortage of hype around Whitley since he was drafted 17th overall in 2016. His talent is undeniable, as evidenced by his 2.83 ERA and 13.9 strikeouts per nine innings that he tallied in 2017 between three minor league levels. He’s been the team’s top prospect the past few years now but has been slowed by injuries and a suspension.

Falling Star

After that superb 2017 season, Whitley was limited to only 26.1 innings at Double-A in 2018, though he pitched another 26 innings in the Arizona Fall League. The 2019 season was even worse, as he got shelled at Triple-A and simply lost his command before being shut down for a large portion of the season. He threw only 59.2 innings that year plus another 25 in the Fall League.

The loss of the 2020 minor league season hurt Whitley as much as anyone, as he hasn’t pitched in a competitive game aside from Spring Training since that 2019 Arizona Fall League stint. He still has the ceiling of an ace, but he’s nearly five years into his professional career and he’s yet to have success at the Triple-A level. As a result, he’s now drawing comparisons to Mark Appel.

Whitley isn’t the first Astros pitcher to get this recommendation in the past year. Justin Verlander and Roberto Osuna both reportedly were told they needed the dreaded Tommy John surgery last year. Verlander tried to rehab the injury and ended up making it worse and undergoing the procedure anyway. Osuna rehabbed as well and the free agent is preparing a showcase for teams.

Obviously the Astros and Whitley are trying to avoid the surgery, but the fact that it’s been recommended means he may end up needing it sooner or later. An attempt to rehab might only delay the inevitable, but they obviously believe it’s worth a chance.

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Moving Forward

The Astros signed Jake Odorizzi to take Valdez’s place in the rotation, but they can ill afford any more injuries. Luis Garcia and Brandon Bielak would be the next men up, and Austin Pruitt and Josh James should return sometime after the season starts. The loss of Whitley hurts, of course, but given how the past few years have gone for him, I wasn’t expecting much anyway.

Regardless of whether he undergoes the surgery now or not, I wouldn’t anticipate seeing Whitley in the majors this year. If he does have the surgery, he’ll be out for at least a year. Given his lack of innings over the past three years, it’s not likely he would be able to make a significant impact at the major league level until 2023.

It’s unlikely the team will cut him loose. They’ve invested a great deal in him over the past few years and will probably give him every opportunity to return from this injury. He’s still only 23 and still has a high ceiling, so there’s little risk in trying to see if he can make a comeback from what’s been a trying few years.

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This all just proves how difficult it can be to build an organization from the ground up. Prospects can have all the talent in the world but are never sure things. The Astros have gotten lucky with the likes of Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, George Springer, Lance McCullers and Kyle Tucker, but they’ve also had some misses (such as Appel). Hopefully Whitley doesn’t follow that same path.