Astros call up former top pitching prospect Forrest Whitley: ‘A long time coming’

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Astros call up former top pitching prospect Forrest Whitley: ‘A long time coming’

HOUSTON — Mondays are universal off days in the minor leagues, meaning Forrest Whitley could crash on his couch. He fell half asleep before his phone started to ring.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Triple-A manager Mickey Storey told him, “but you’re going to the show.”

Whitley’s wait is over. The Astros promoted their former top prospect to the major-league roster Tuesday, completing a circuitous journey for a man once regarded as Houston’s next homegrown ace.

“It’s the first time in my life where I’ve really kind of felt that surreal moment where I was having a hard time discerning real life and what was actually going on,” Whitley said. “It’s a pretty crazy moment.”

The Astros selected Whitley 17th overall in the 2016 draft, signed him for a $3.148 million bonus and watched him ascend to the top of almost every outside publication’s prospect rankings. At Whitley’s peak, Baseball America ranked him the sport’s fifth-best prospect.

Injuries, ineffectiveness and a 50-game drug suspension before the 2018 season derailed Whitley’s career while dimming his prospect cache. The Athletic’s Keith Law didn’t even rank him among the Astros’ preseason top 20 prospects, a list that featured nine other pitchers.

Now, Whitley will offer a fresh arm to a bullpen in desperate need of it. Whitley’s promotion is purely circumstantial: none of Houston’s other relievers on the 40-man roster have been optioned long enough to be recalled without putting someone on the injured list. He is a prime candidate to return to the minor leagues this weekend when Justin Verlander is activated, meaning Whitley may only be a major-leaguer for two days.

While Whitley is here, manager Joe Espada said he could provide up to two innings for his otherwise depleted bullpen. This winter, after he received a fourth minor-league option year, Whitley converted to a reliever in hopes of aiding the major-league team in any way possible.

Whitley made just three relief appearances in Triple-A Sugar Land, surrendering three home runs and four earned runs across three innings.

“I kind of underestimated the difference between being a starter and a reliever — it’s two completely different processes even though it’s the same game,” Whitley said. “I feel like I’m settling in now, but I feel like the adrenaline out there is really going to carry me a long way whenever I get in there.”

Though slowed by a middle finger injury to start the season, Whitley has touched 99 mph with his sinker in three relief appearances for Triple-A Sugar Land.

Whitley underwent Tommy John surgery in 2021 and sustained a lat strain that limited him to 30 Triple-A innings last season. From 2019-23, Whitley allowed 101 earned runs across 129 2/3 innings of affiliated baseball.

Still, Whitley seemed aware of Houston’s neverending roster churn and acknowledged a feeling his promotion “was on the horizon.” If Whitley does pitch in either of the next two games against the Atlanta Braves, he will be the 22nd pitcher used by the Astros this season. No team has deployed more.

“I’ve been in this situation for the past four years, so I tried to find ways to mitigate the mental hula hoops that I can put myself through when a time like this is happening with the team,” Whitley said. “I was trying to do my best to stay where my feet were and stay sane. I felt like I was doing a good job of that, so I think that’s why it got me a little bit more than expected.”

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(Photo: Rich Storry / USA Today)