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Should Forrest Whitley take the Astros open rotation spot?

With Josh James recently injured, should Forrest Whitley be his replacement?

Jeff Roberson/AP

Should Forrest Whitley be the Astros 5th Starter?

As most of you know, it was recently announced that Josh James was the latest victim of “discomfort”. In reality, it was announced that he had strained his quad muscle, and in the best case scenario, would now be fortifying the bullpen instead of taking over the 5th rotation spot to start the year.

Coinciding with that, there’s been a bit of a vocal uprising that Forrest Whitley should be in the MLB. I can see some aspects of both sides of the argument. I mean he is the #1 Pitching Prospect in all of baseball. So before we make any hasty decisions, let’s take a step back and look at who Forrest Whitley is.

The Runner Sports

Who is Forrest Whitley?

Whitley, 21, is a monstrous 6’7 right handed pitcher, that just prior to the draft dropped from 260 to 225lbs, and is most recently reported at 195 lbs. Whitley was the 17th overall draft pick out of San Antonio TX in 2016. It looks like a complete and total steal. Fangraphs recently had this to say about him:

Whitley has five — count ’em five — excellent pitches, including one of the minors’ highest curveball spin rates and best changeups. He’s also a well-made 6-foot-7 and his upper-90s fastball motors toward the plate at an angle that’s tough for hitters to square.”

It’s a great read, but here was the other item that further pushes the envelope of him being ready:

“His stuff was wholly intact in Arizona, as Whitley sat 93-97 and touched 99. His apparitional changeup haunts both left and right-handed hitters, disappearing beneath barrels as it approaches the plate. Whitley’s array of breaking stuff is well-designed. His power 12-6 curveball honors his Texas heritage but has been de-emphasized as an out pitch in deference to his tilting, mid-80s slider. He has the best collection of stuff in the minor leagues, and might have been in the big leagues last year if not for various setbacks.”

Then Whitley had his debut in Spring Training, and needless to say, he was absolutely dominant.

So I know what you must be thinking. We have a recently vacated spot in our rotation, and the top prospect in baseball, seems like a match made in heaven. Before we get too excited, let’s keep our expectations in check.

Last year, Whitley was absolutely dominant in the time he did get to play in the minors, and even more so in the Arizona Fall League. But even still, we’re talking about very limited exposure to professional development, Whitley hasn’t even been to AAA. In fact, he only has a whopping 40 IP in AA.

Now, a player skipping AAA isn’t unheard of, even with a limited amount of time in AA. You don’t have to look back far in Astros history to find a similar developmental path, with the Astros promoting Lance McCullers Jr from AA after 32 IP.

Up to this point in the article, it’s hard to fault anyone from thinking that Whitley is the answer to our open 5th spot. And truthfully, there are arguments for it. But unfortunately, I can’t imagine the Astros pulling the trigger or even myself personally recommending it.

I can sit here and argue the developmental aspects, which warrant a discussion on their own, especially with considerations to Whitley’s limited exposure to professional baseball. You can argue that rushing him could result in numerous negative aspects given the mental nature of the game of baseball. But honestly, it boils down to Whitley not being NEEDED today, when he can personally benefit from added development, and the Astros can benefit from the added control.

I mentioned Lance McCullers, who seems like an apt comparison considering his AA experience and age at the time of his call up. McCullers was called up May 15th, 2015. He replaced Oberholtzer due to blister issues, all of which seems very relevant. The difference? The Astros were off to a surprisingly hot start being 23-13 on May 15th, up 4.5 games in a division race no one expected them to win. Without McCullers, the Astros are very unlikely to have sniffed the playoffs, squeaking in as a Wild Card Team that year.

This year, the Astros are in a completely different place. Fangraphs projects the Astros to come in at 94-68, a full 10 games above the Angels, and the Athletics being the only team scraping by to a .500 record. Obviously, projections are “educated best guesses”, and by no means fool proof. With that said, a 10 game window is a significant one, which is why Vegas has the Astros with the highest odds for the playoffs.

Justin Verlander pranked Whitley after a “Daddy’s back” tweet
Chandler Rome

Truthfully, the reason I personally can’t see the move happening boils down to control. People get upset about service time manipulation, but honestly, Whitley actually SHOULD spend more time in the minors. In his scenario, not only is it justified, but it aligns well with him potentially being called up at the best time later this year.

So let’s dig in a little deeper to the Service Time rules. I’m not an expert, so if someone sees an aspect I misrepresented, feel free to correct it. Major League seasons consist of 187 days, comparatively service time considers 172 days on the active roster as a full year. Players are under club control for 6 years, so if a player played 5 full seasons and 171 days, the club would control them for an additional year. So for the first factor in the service time considerations – literally 16 days less time on the roster would give the Astros an entire additional year of Whitley before he becomes a free agent.

The second aspect to consider is “Super-Two” status. This one is slightly more confusing, since unlike the Free Agency side, the timelines are not carved into stone. Super-Two literally grants players an additional year of Arbitration resulting in far larger pay-outs based on being in the top 22% of service time for players with over 2 years of service time. Since the deadline is based on decisions of all the clubs in baseball, it is hard to predict the exact “cut off” date, but generally June is considered the same time to call up a player to avoid Super Two status.

Sorry, enough of the rules on service time. While I’m not advocating for service time manipulation, it’d be foolish to not take it into consideration when making a decision on calling up the best pitching prospect in baseball. Even if that were not the case, there’s a legitimate argument that additional seasoning in the minors would be beneficial for Whitley. They could continue utilizing the piggy-back starter system to limit his innings to keep him fresh and available for the Playoffs.

Let me know your thoughts. Do you think Whitley is ready? Would you have him fill the 5th slot?


Should Whitley start the season in the Astros rotation?

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