On Wednesday morning, Houston Astro fans got their first bit of bad news during 2018's spring training as the organizations's top pitching prospect, right handed starter Forrest Whitley, received a 50 game suspension for violating minor league baseball's drug policy. The suspension was first reported by ESPN.com's Buster Olney on Twitter:
The Astros’ Forrest Whitley, one of baseball’s best pitching prospects, has been suspended 50 games without pay for a violation of the minor-league drug program.— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) February 21, 2018
Whitley's suspension would go into effect at the beginning of his minor league season, where he is expected to pitch for the Astros' AA affiliate in Corpus Christi, and, according to MLB.com's Brian McTaggart, the earliest Whitley could pitch in 2018, assuming he does start the season at the AA level with Corpus Christi, would be on May 29 at Springfield.
Whitley, 20, was the Astros' first round pick in 2016, 17th pick overall, out of Alamo Heights High School in San Antonio. He received a signing bonus of more than $3 million after choosing to take the Astros up on their offer, as opposed to taking his talents to the collegiate level. His calling card is power, having struck out 143 batters in 92.1 innings across the minor leagues in his first full minor league season. Whitley ended the season at the AA level, which for a pitcher his age, was a huge accomplishment.
Back to the suspension — it is widely known that the drug policy at the minor league level is far more stringent than that of MLB. The first positive test in the minor leagues triggers a suspension. However, follow up reports to today's announcement indicate that the Astros and Whitley have been aware of this suspension coming down the line for some time now, and that Whitley's contention is that he is not a drug abuser, but instead took an unknown stimulant to stay awake while driving home from a friend's college baseball game in recent months:
Can confirm @Buster_ESPN report. Forrest Whitley suspended for 50 games. Source tells me Whitley was at an out of state college baseball game as a fan after his season was over and was given an unknown stimulant by a friend in order to help keep him awake on his long drive home.— Chuck Miketinac (@MaxSportsSA) February 21, 2018
Source says the Whitley’s hired an attorney to try to challenge the MLB ruling because they’ve known for weeks this was coming down, but were unable to stop the ruling.— Chuck Miketinac (@MaxSportsSA) February 21, 2018
Astros' general manager Jeff Luhnow has spoken to media on the matter, and merely evaluating this one minute of audio, he sounds like someone who believes Forrest Whitley will indeed miss 50 games, as opposed to winning some sort of legal battle:
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Echoing what Luhnow said, obviously this is disappointing and a minor setback. It's not out of the realm of possibility that if Whitley picked up where he left off last season in AA and the Astros suffered a flash flood of injuries in the rotation over the summer again — remember when Mike Fiers was their No. 1 starter last season in June? — that Whitley could at least be discussed as a possibility to come up to the big leagues, remote as the actual chance of him coming up before September might be.
Well, that's obviously out the window now. Whitley is going to miss about ten starts that he absolutely needs if he is going to be a part of the Astros' rotation in 2019, which I'm guessing the team is somewhat counting on, considering that Dallas Keuchel appears likely to leave in free agency. Over the last several months, most of the days have been good for the Houston Astros. Today, not so much.
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