The old baseball adage that you can never have too much pitching came to mind last week when the news broke about Houston Astros prospect Forrest Whitley.
The 23-year-old right-hander has long been considered the Astros’ top prospect and one of the top pitching prospects in all of baseball. The club’s No. 1 draft pick and the overall No. 17 selection in 2016, he sped through Houston’s lower levels and reached Double-A Corpus Christi by the end of his second season of professional ball.
He appeared in just four games at the Double-A level at the end of that 2017 season, but he turned heads in a big way, striking out 26 batters and walking only four in 14 2/3 innings. He looked like a sure-fire front-of-the-rotation starter in the making – the quintessential can’t-miss prospect.
Since then, though, it’s been one roadblock after another for the San Antonio native. His missed the first two months of the 2018 season due to a 50-game suspension for violating baseball’s drug policy. He wound up appearing in just eight games that season, as he also battled oblique problems.
His rep didn’t take much of a hit, though, as he was ranked the No. 5 prospect in all of baseball by Baseball America heading into the 2019 season. But Whitley encountered more trouble that year, getting knocked around in Triple-A to the tune of 33 earned runs in 24 1/3 innings at the start of the season before being sidelined due to shoulder fatigue. He came back to pitch at Double-A later that season, but his 5.56 ERA in 22 2/3 innings wasn’t close to what had been expected of him.
The 2020 season brought more of the same; Whitley strained his forearm during preseason workouts and never got called up from the club’s alternate training site in Corpus Christi.
Whitley’s run of trouble got even worse last week when it was announced that he had sprained his right UCL ligament and would undergo Tommy John surgery, sidelining him for all of the 2021 season.
So what does Whitley have to do with the Pirates? For me, at least, it only hammered home the point that you can never have too much pitching. Since Ben Cherington’s arrival, the Pirates have seemed to embrace that philosophy, stocking up on pitching prospects when dealing Starling Marte (Brennan Malone), Josh Bell (Eddy Yean and, to a lesser extent, Wil Crowe), Joe Musgrove (Omar Cruz) and Jameson Taillon (Miguel Yajure and Roansy Contreras). The Bucs also loaded up on arms in the shortened 2020 amateur draft; after first-round pick Nick Gonzales, their next five selections were pitchers. Competitive balance pick Carmen Mlodzinski was taken 31st overall and second-round pick Jared Jones was the 44th selection in the draft. Jose Soriano was a Rule 5 pick. And a couple of other promising pitching prospects came with the previous regime, including Quinn Priester – ranked as the club’s No. 4 prospect by Baseball America – Cody Bolton (No. 7) and Tahnaj Thomas (No. 8).
Who knows how many of them — if any of them — will reach their full potential? Regardless, it’ll be exciting to watch those young arms develop this year and in years to come. It’ll be equally exciting – and maybe even more — to keep an eye on the top high school and college prospects this spring, given that the Pirates hold the No. 1 pick in the July draft. The top-rated prospect, according to Baseball America, is Vanderbilt right-hander Kumar Rocker, while Jack Leiter, Rocker’s Commodores’ teammate, checks in at No. 5. The other members of Baseball America’s top-5 prospects list are high school shortstop Jordan Lawlar, college catcher Adrian Del Castillo and another high school shortstop, Marcelo Mayer.
All three of those position players certainly have their positive attributes and would be welcome additions to any organization. Lawlar is a plus runner with hit and power tools; Del Castillo is considered one of the best college hitters in the country at Miami and Meyer is said to be the best defensive shortstop in his high school class, with a solid left-handed stroke at the plate.
But given all the uncertainty that comes with pitching prospects, here’s hoping Cherington and Co. opt for Rocker, Leiter, or even LSU’s Jaden Hill when it comes time to make the call on July 11. If they need a reminder, all they need do is think of Forrest Whitley.
DRAFT UPDATE: Speaking of Rocker, the big right-hander pitched eight innings of shutout ball in a 5-0 win over No. 9 Oklahoma State Saturday. Rocker, now 4-0, allowed just two hits and walked one while striking out nine over 103 pitches. Seventy of those 103 pitches were strikes. On the season, Rocker has thrown 23 innings and hasn’t surrendered an earned run yet. He has given up eight hits and eight walks while striking out 34. Leiter, meanwhile, pitched the nightcap in Saturday’s doubleheader, throwing five shutout innings. He yielded two hits and three walks while striking out seven of the 19 hitters he faced. So far in 2021, Leiter has worked 20 innings, giving up one earned run, seven hits and 10 walks. He has struck out 33. I find myself wavering between the two; I like Rocker’s size and strength, but Leiter seems like the more polished pitcher at this point. The good news is, barring any issues with COVID, Vanderbilt’s regular-season runs through the third week of May, so both Rocker and Leiter will have ample opportunity to show their right-handed wares for Pirates brass.