Entering the season, Forrest Whitley was one of the hottest topics in Astros circles. The hurler was coming off of a debut season in which he reached Double-A as a teenager, an incredibly rare achievement that put him in elite company. Heading into spring, chatter among the prospecting community was that Whitley was seen as the clear #1 pure pitching prospect by scouts, and many projected him as a 2018 contributor for the big league club.
As we all know, things did not quite go according to plan for Whitley this past season. Fortunately, it was not due to a backslide in his on-field performance- once on the field, Whitley showed the same stuff that rocketed him into national top 10s in 2017- but his season was derailed before it started by a 50-game adderall suspension. Combined with some health trouble, the suspension ended up limiting Whitley to just 26.1 innings with Corpus Christi, in what can be only called a lost season.
Despite the bumps in the road, to most Whitley’s prospect stock is entirely intact. He lived up to his billing while on the field, striking out 34 against 11 walks and allowing just two home runs. Whitley’s lack of live innings in 2018 made sending him to the Arizona Fall League a no-brainer, and he made his debut in the desert earlier this week. The 20-year old started brilliantly, striking out eight in three clean frames before getting into some trouble in the fourth frame, which he did not finish. In the small 2018 sample Whitley put up, trouble innings like this one were a common theme, indicating that he may be struggling with mechanical consistency, or potentially endurance. These are common issues for all young pitchers, particularly tall, powerful and wiry ones like Whitley, and more reps should be all he needs to iron out the kinks- it’s important to note that Whitley has made his mark in just 137 innings pitched across three campaigns and is very inexperienced as a professional pitcher.
The hype around Whitley may have been slightly overzealous in the 2018 preseason, but I think a similar level of excitement is warranted entering 2019. With two rotation spots potentially opening in Houston, I expect Whitley to push hard for the fifth starter role in the early summer if Charlie Morton doesn’t return. He could be a bullpen contributor more or less right away, but I see no reason for the Astros to pursue that path with Whitley as there is little need for another relief arm and a move has the potential to significantly slow his development as a starter. With a four-pitch arsenal, a fastball that can touch 98 with the potential to go higher, and flashes of above average command, Whitley still projects as a true ace and playing with his role will only slow his progression on that path.
With a full offseason, added strength and valuable AFL reps, I expect Whitley to be primed for a massive season in 2019. He could start at either Double-A or Triple-A and barring injury could make 2019 starts- though he may have to go the Walker Buehler route and wait for an injury to get that shot. He remains the top pitching prospect ahead of MacKenzie Gore and Jesus Luzardo according to virtually every outlet with Michael Kopech now rehabbing from Tommy John.
Player comparisons are a dangerous game, and comparing prospects to established major league stars is generally downright foolhardy. That said, Whitley is a rare talent and when I watch him pitch two names tend to come to mind. Neither is a perfect match- both are lefties, and dominant in MLB- but from a stuff and profile perspective, I’m frequently reminded of Clayton Kershaw and Blake Snell. Early-career Kershaw, and the current Snell, are both whiff machines with average to above average command and four-pitch arsenals who can run their pitch counts up early but rarely get hit hard. It’s a hell of a projection to make, but I feel strongly that Whitley can be a similar pitcher in the big leagues with a bit more fine-tuning. With Whitley and Kyle Tucker both knocking on the door to the bigs, it looks as though the Astros are in line for a significant talent infusion in the summer of 2019.