In a season following a World Series title, the Houston Astros — almost complete in each corner of the roster — will lean on depth to start the season. The absense of Lance McCullers Jr. opened the door for Hunter Brown to move into the fifth spot of the rotation, but there’s another prospect lurking for innings: Forrest Whitley.
Whitley toed the rubber Saturday for his third Grapefruit League appearance out of a healthy spring. Although his final line doesn’t scream dominance, the Astros’ once coveted prospect flashed improvements. Whitley pounded the strike zone, finding himself ahead in counts — what he struggled with in previous appearances.
“I could have commanded it a little bit better, get it into the zone a little bit more,” Whitley said. “I’ve kind of got this hangnail issue on my index finger. So it’s a little bit tough to throw the curveball and the slider at the moment for strikes, but overall it was okay.”
After retiring the first two hitters in the first inning, Whitley surrendered a two-strike single to veteran backstop Willson Contreras. Behind Whitley, a throwing error by second baseman Chad Stevens caused early trouble with runners in scoring position.
“I think there could have been some better pitch selection with the two strikes,” Whitley said. “But it’s camp. You’re gonna get those reps out early.”
But Whitley still closed the door, inducing a flyout to centerfield. He followed with a perfect second frame, picking up his first of two strikeouts. Yet, back-to-back singles put him in a hole, and a wild pitch brought home one of two runs for St. Louis.
A double ended his later in the third, putting to bed an outing Whitley showed promise. He struck out two batters, throwing 38 of his 57 pitches for strikes. Whitley said he’s seeing some of his best velocity coming into spring training in recent years, and if these progressions carry into Triple-A, Whitley debuting will come to fruition.
“I don’t go off the whole spring,” manager Dusty Baker said. “I go on the last and hopefully build off that.”
Ronel Blanco Stretches Into a Third Inning
General manager Dana Brown mentioned multiple times this spring right-handed pitching prospect Ronel Blanco will be stretched out. The Triple-A closer made his fourth spring training appearance Saturday, pushing his outing into a third inning of work.
Before Saturday, Blanco made consecutive two-inning appearances, striking out four batters and allowing one run. Stretching into the ninth inning Saturday, the 29 year old reached a spring-high 47 pitches, recording eight outs before given the hook. Blanco punched out a pair and walked a pair over 2.2 hitless innings.
“What he can do is put himself in contention for when we may need some multiple innings,” Baker said. “And I know before I got here, he was a starter, and they made him a reliever, a really good reliever. So now, we’re trying to stretch him back out for possible need.”
Blanco is competing for a bullpen seat, and now, he’s pitched his deepest outing of spring training. With McCullers starting the season on the injured list, there’s an open spot on the staff, and Blanco continues to stride towards that opportunity.
Luke Berryhill Sings National Anthem
By now, everyone with an eye on the Astros’ farm system knows about Luke Berryhill‘s second love: music. The catcher sang the Star Spangled Banner before Saturday’s contest with the Cardinals, receiving extra cheers from Houston fans and teammates at the Ballpark at the Palm Beaches and recognition from Baker.
Baker penciled in Berryhill’s name into the ninth spot Saturday, starring the country music singer as the designated hitter. But a dual outing for Berryhill was short lived. The Astros scratched Berryhill within the hour of the lineup announcement, replacing him with Jordan Brewer. Berryhill wasn’t without lumber Saturday though, as the 24 year old took live batting practice against J.P France on a backfield before Saturday’s festivities.
Berryhill mentioned Saturday he expects to begin the 2023 season in Triple-A Sugar Land. Playing most of last year in Double-A Corpus Christi, the catcher could join Cesar Salazar and one of Yainer Díaz and Korey Lee with the Space Cowboys.
J.P. France Throws Live Bullpen
Before France took the mound on a spring training practice field Saturday, he threw warmup pitches to a small group of coaches in what looked to be a bullpen. France soon made the walk over along with Díaz, his backstop for the morning. Facing live batters — Berryhill and Will Wagner — a few pitches were whiffed and a few others poked to the outfield.
France, who the Astros added to the 40-man roster this offseason to be rotation depth, hasn’t appeared in a Grapefruit League game this spring. Chandler Rome of the Houston Chronicle reported March 2 that France is behind scheduled due to “an unspecified injury.”
Seeing more action in short relief in the latter half of 2022, France is still an option to eat innings this season for the Astros. As Blanco becomes option for long relief, too, another layer of depth is climbing back into the equation in France.
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