Forrest Whitley still has a bright MLB future
In baseball years, 2019 was a long time ago. Carlos Correa, George Springer, Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Zack Greinke and Collin McHugh were Astros. AJ Hinch managed the team while Dusty Baker had not yet obtained his first World Series championship.
In hindsight, one of the most staggering turns of events since 2019 isn't the changing of the guard on the Astros' roster and in the clubhouse. It's the complete disappearance of the once-touted Forrest Whitley.
At the start of the season, Whitley was the seventh-ranked prospect in all of baseball, one spot ahead of teammate Kyle Tucker. Tucker needs no introduction in this space. Names surrounding Whitley in the top-10 include Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Fernando Tatis Jr., Eloy Jimenez, Victor Robles, Royce Lewis, Nick Senzel, Tucker, Alex Kiriloff and Brendan Rodgers.
Expand the list to top-20 and you get names like Bichette, Franco, Luzardo and Mize. All of the top-20 have made their big league debuts. All that is but Whitely.
What happened to the once flame-throwing, can't miss prospect? Well, a combination of injuries and a failed drug test derailed a once can't-miss future. He posted a 6.53 ERA, walking 27 in only 40 innings of work in 2022.
From top prospect in the game to most perplexing, what's next for Whitley?
It may be time for a transformation in the minors. Now 10th amongst Astros prospects, his profile on MLB.com still highlights his potential.
"When healthy and at his best, Whitley displayed five pitches that could grade at plus or better. His best weapons were his fastball, which ranges from 92-99 mph with cut and sink, and his mid-80s changeup, which features fade and depth and ranked among the best in the Minors. He also showed a low-80s downer curveball, a mid-80s slider with late bite and a low-90s cutter that some scouts believed was better than either of his breaking balls. "- MLB.com
Across five seasons in the minors, Whitley has a career 12.7 K/9, a dominating number. He also has an all-too-high 4.6 BB/9, a number that climbed all the way to 6.3 in his two seasons in AA.
The mechanical adjustment Whitley made back in 2019 appears to have derailed him in hindsight.
The best course of action to get Whitley back on track might be ditching the long-term thought of Whitley as a starter and seeing what he's got as a wipeout reliever.
Right now his scouting grades are: Fastball-60, curveball-60, slider-55, changeup-60, cutter-55. In 2019 he had a 70-grade fastball, 65-grade changeup and 60-grade curveball and slider.
His stuff is simply too filthy not to play. So let's move him to the bullpen. Let him join the ranks of Rollie Fingers, John Franco, Goose Gossage, Jason Isringhausen, Joe Nathan, Lee Smith and Francisco Rodriguez as "failed" starters that transformed their careers and became either All-Stars of Hall of Famers out of the bullpen.
Just this year we saw Rafael Montero become one of the most dominant relievers in the game and a trusted leverage arm in the postseason. Let's not forget Montero came up as a starter, starting 118 of his 130 minor league appearances. He got rocked in his 30 big league starts, finishing with a 4.92 ERA and 4.87 walks per nine.
Let Whitley hone his craft and command out of the bullpen. He can hone his craft and command there, harnessing his still elite fastball, developing his slider into the sweeper we have seen the Astros become renound for, and maybe even keep the changeup and curve.
Ryan Pressly has made it work at an elite level as a four-pitch reliever, a rarity in today's game. He too began his minor league career as a starter, hence the starter's repertoire, before control issues sent him to the bullpen, where he has become one of the best closers in the game.
We just saw the lightbulb click for Bryan Abreu this past season, one in which he blew away the opposition. He can legitimately lay claim to being one of the best bullpen arms in baseball.
Debate has raged for years about Abreu's future as a starter, but for now, he's a dominant arm contending on a title team. Maybe he has a future as a starter. Maybe Whitley does too.
But it's make or break time. He appears to be damaged goods as a starter in the minors. It's not too late to right the ship.
Houston should transform Whitley to a reliever, especially with their depth of starting pitchers in the bigs under team control. Let him rebuild and then let him unload on batters in the latter innings. His stuff is simply too overpowering not to make a meaningful contribution at some point in time.