Forrest Whitley was pitching in the state semifinals at Dell Dimond the night he was drafted 17th overall in 2016.
The San Antonio native will make his triumphant return to Round Rock when the Express, now affiliated with the Houston Astros, return for their 20th season beginning Tuesday night against the Nashville Sounds.
“This is the first time I’ve been here since (that night),” Whitley said. “To take the mound here for the first time since becoming an Astro is gonna be a pretty special moment and I’m pretty excited for it.”
In 23 games between Class-A, Class-A Advanced and Double-A last season, Whitley finished with a 5-4 record and 2.83 ERA with 143 strikeouts in 92.1 innings. He was invited to Astros spring training this season.
He said the biggest lesson he learned is that every pitcher does things differently. Whereas Justin Verlander throws a lot of pitches during a bullpen session, Gerrit Cole is more selective with how many he throws.
In February of 2018, Whitley was suspended for 50 games for violating Major League Baseball's drug prevention and treatment program.
His goal this year is to stay healthy, and the title of top pitching prospect in baseball isn’t changing his approach.
“I feel like there aren’t any biggest expectations than what I put on myself,” Whitley said. “Any of the outside stuff, in my opinion, is little smaller. I set pretty stout goals for myself, so it doesn’t affect me too much.
Whitley isn’t the only top prospect in the Express’ loaded young lineup. Outfielders Kyle Tucker and Yordan Alvarez, the No. 2 and No. 3 prospects in the system, respectively. Three more top-20 Houston prospects are on the squad to start the year as well.
Baseball America named the Round Rock Express as the most exciting team for 2019.
Round Rock will be led by the youngest managers in Triple-A with 32-year-old Mickey Storey managing the club. He went 81-59 last season with Single-A Quad Cities, his first year as a manager.
“It’s a gift and a curse — if I was old I would’ve played longer,” Storey said. “I played six years in Triple-A, four in the PCL. I’m very familiar with the mindset of the player. I’m working with them every day as if they’re going to be in the big leagues.”
The Express opened up the regular season with three wins in five games on the road against the New Orleans Baby Cakes. Round Rock exploded for 14 home runs in the five-game series, led by Alvarez with four.
Following a three-game set with the Sounds, Round Rock welcomes defending PCL champions Memphis Redbirds to Dell Diamond for four games beginning Friday night.
With the MLB team in Houston being one of the most successful the last few seasons, and the Triple-A team equaling that mark the last few seasons, expectations for the Express this season are sky high.
“The goal is the one laid out by the organization,” Storey said. “That’s to develop these guys into major league players. They have the talent and this is kind of the last stop. This team is versatile and deep with strong pitching. This is the best we’ve got in the Astros’ system. This team is going to be exciting.”