Each week, MiLB.com profiles an elite prospect by chronicling the steps he's taken to reach the brink of realizing his Major League dream. Here's a look at Houston Astros right-hander Forrest Whitley. For more player journeys on The Road to The Show, click here.
All too often on the path to the Majors, a highly touted player falls out of favor among the prospect ranks due to injuries or circumstances beyond their control. Most of those players must scratch and claw to stay on an increasingly harsher path to the big leagues while the once sky-high expectations come crashing down around them.
But sometimes a player has enough talent and possesses the tools to sustain their grasp of the spotlight, even with extended time away from the field.
Astros top prospect Forrest Whitley has thrown 197 innings since being drafted nearly five years ago. More than 46 percent of that total workload came during the 2017 season.
But Whitley has persevered. Though his stock may have tumbled from its peak, he’s still the No. 41 overall prospect in the sport and the 12th-highest ranked right-hander.
Besides his control, each of his tools grade out as plus. His sinking fastball and power curve are his best offerings. He throws a late-moving slider, and his deceptive changeup is made effective by the repeatable delivery produced from his tall, lanky frame.
Whitley’s past three seasons have been undermined by injury. Even without a Minor League season in 2020, he suffered a forearm strain in summer camp that limited his participation at the club’s alternate site in Corpus Christi thereafter.
He’s been invited to big league Spring Training in 2021 with the hopes that this can finally be the year he puts together a full season on the mound and recapture more of the acclaim that’s followed him since he was drafted.
“It’s definitely something where I feel one step closer,” Whitley told MLB.com. “I’m just making sure I'm giving them every reason to believe in me.”
2016 (Rookie-level Gulf Coast League, Rookie-level Greeneville)
After picking within the top two selections for four consecutive years, the Astros snapped their postseason drought in 2015. With the No. 17 pick in the following Draft, Houston selected Whitley, the No. 12 Draft prospect, and signed the already 6-foot-7, 238-pound San Antonio high schooler away from his Florida State commitment for $3.148 million.
"Forrest is somebody we view as a really premium talent in this draft class," former Astros scouting director and current Orioles general manager Mike Elias told MLB.com after the Draft. "He's a tall right-handed pitcher with power stuff. He's got a fastball that gets up to 97 [mph], pitches in the 93-94 range. He's got two breaking balls that our scouts view as above-average pitches -- an overhand curveball and more of a slider -- and he also has a really polished changeup, which for us, when we're evaluating a high school kid, that's a pretty special thing to come across."
Whitley didn’t post great numbers out of the gate in the Gulf Coast League, compiling a 1-1 record with a 7.36 ERA, three walks and 13 strikeouts in 7 1/3 innings. But he settled in a bit in the Appalachian League, sporting a 3.18 ERA with identical walk and strikeout numbers over four starts, spanning 11 1/3 innings.
At the end of that season, Whitley ranked No. 69 overall behind five other hurlers from the 2016 Draft class. That group – Boston’s Jay Groom, Marlins’ Braxton Garrett, Rockies’ Riley Pint and Oakland’s A.J. Puk have each suffered Whitley’s similar luck with injuries and off-field transgressions. Though Puk and Garrett have made a minor impact in the big leagues, none of these pitchers have remained in the Top 100 prospect list despite having eligibility remaining.
2017 (Class A Quad Cities, Class A Advanced Buies Creek, Double-A Corpus Christi)
The Alamo Heights High School product improved to become one of the best pitchers in the Minors during his first full season – by far his best as a pro.
He made 12 appearances in the Midwest League, posting a 2.91 ERA with 67 strikeouts in 46 1/3 innings before getting bumped up to Buies Creek. He remained consistent for seven starts in the Carolina League, going 3-1 with a 3.16 ERA and 50 punchouts in 31 1/3 innings.
Whitley finished the season with Double-A Corpus Christi and allowed just three runs in 14 2/3 innings (1.84 ERA) with 26 strikeouts and four walks.
The most notable improvement for Whitley as the season progressed was his walk rate, which shrunk from 4.08 with Quad Cities to 2.56 in Buies Creek. That figure continued to trend in the right direction with the Hooks as he’d finish with a 2.46 mark in four Texas League appearances.
In his best start of the season, the then-20-year-old did not allow a hit over five innings, struck out nine and issued just one walk.
"I just attribute that to getting to 0-2 a lot and my put-away pitches were working," Whitley told MiLB.com after that game. "I was getting a lot of swing-and-miss, and I was able to read the hitters a little bit. That translated over from my experience in the Midwest League."
2018 (Double-A Corpus Christi)
After climbing three levels of the Minors, Whitley entered the 2018 season as the No. 9 overall prospect in baseball. But his opportunity to capitalize was quickly dashed by a 50-game drug suspension to open the season.
"I made a mistake and take full responsibility for my actions," Whitley said in a statement released by his agent made that February. "I want to apologize to the Astros organization, my family and those closest to me. I will learn from this mistake and continue striving to be the best baseball player that I can be."
Whitley quickly reminded the baseball world what he was made of, striking out five and allowing one baserunner in his first start back from the suspension in June. He built up his pitch count from there until a July outing where he was lifted with oblique discomfort after recording just two outs. He appeared twice more at the end of the regular season and finished with a 3.76 ERA, an 11.62 K/9 and a 3.76 BB/9.
He carried the momentum of his return into an impressive Arizona Fall League campaign. Whitley struck out 36 batters over 26 innings in six starts for Scottsdale, posting a 2.42 ERA.
“Trying to develop a pretty consistent pregame and in-game routine. That’s something that I had been working on in the season a little bit -- I obviously didn’t have all the time in the world that I wanted to,” Whitley said during the AFL season in 2018.
2019 (Triple-A Round Rock, Class A Advanced Fayetteville, Double-A Corpus Christi)
Things continued to trend in Whitley’s direction with his first big-league Spring Training appearance. In five games for the Astros, he struck out 17, walked five and yielded five earned runs in a 15-inning span.
He opened the regular season in the Pacific Coast League and made eight appearances before hitting the injured list with shoulder fatigue in late May.
“He’s going to work out there, he’s going to strengthen his shoulder, he’s going to throw there, and at the right time he’ll get a chance to get back out with a club,” former general manager Jeff Lunhow told MLB.com. “Sort of a reset on his season and probably a good time to do it, because there’s still plenty of season left and he’ll have an opportunity to get back out to one of our affiliates and pitch and prove to us he’s ready for an opportunity here, if one presents itself.”
Whitley had a rough time in the PCL, sporting a 12.21 ERA in five starts with 29 strikeouts and 15 walks in 24 1/3 innings. He was also not immune to the rising home run figures in Triple-A, allowing nine longballs while playing for the Express.
He struggled in his two rehab appearances in the GCL in July and made two more starts with Fayetteville -- surrendering just one hit with nine strikeouts over five innings in his second appearance -- before returning to Corpus Christi.
In six starts to finish the season, Whitley pitched to a 5.56 ERA, struck out 36 and walked 19 in 22 2/3 innings with the Hooks. He made another turn in the AFL after the season and most importantly improved his walk rate from 6.64 in the regular season to 3.24 with Peoria.
Whitley had another difficult showing in the Grapefruit League in 2020, allowing five runs and striking out seven over six innings across four appearances.
As the Astros have traded away a number of highly ranked prospects to build a perennial contender and eventually a 2017 World Series club, Whitley has managed to remain untouchable. With aging stars Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke anchoring the big-league rotation, it won’t be long before the club will call upon its top prospect to compete for his spot.
“I feel like the last three years, every year is just kind of run into the most important year of my life so I’m just trying not to focus too much on it and have fun with the game,” he told MLB.com.
Gerard Gilberto_ is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @Gerard_Gilberto._