John McClain: McCullers’ elbow injury presents opportunities for Brown, Whitley

Feb 16, 2023; West Palm Beach, FL, USA; Houston Astros starting pitcher Hunter Brown (58) catches a ball during the Houston Astros spring training workouts at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

John McClain: McCullers’ elbow injury presents opportunities for Brown, Whitley

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – What the Astros hope will be a temporary setback for pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. presents Hunter Brown and possibly Forrest Whitley with opportunities to play more important roles when the spring training schedule begins Saturday against the New York Mets.

Brown and Whitley have a chance to impress manager Dusty Baker enough to enhance their positions in the rotation or the bullpen since McCullers disclosed that his “small elbow strain” will keep him out until after the start of the season. While McCullers is undergoing rehabilitation, Brown and Whitley will try to step up during his absence.

Brown has the most to gain. Still classified as a rookie despite his impressive performance as a starter and reliever after his September callup in 2022, Brown could benefit the most but says McCullers being out won’t change his approach to spring training or the start of the season.

“If we want to repeat as champions, we’re going to need Lance,” Brown said Thursday. “I hope he can bounce back as soon as possible. I came into camp thinking I had an opportunity to make the rotation regardless, and that’s exactly what I’m still going to try to do. Nothing’s changed as far as the way I prepare.”

As spring training approached, it looked as if the top-six spots in the rotation were secure, barring injury or poor performance. Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier, McCullers, Luis Garcia, Jose Urquidy, and Brown seemed to be set for when Baker uses a six-man rotation. Without McCullers, Brown appears to be guaranteed a spot among the top five.

“I don’t think that’s necessarily true,” Brown said. “I think there’s a lot of camp left, and there are guys who’re gunning for these opportunities. I’m going to keep my foot on the gas pedal and try to show this staff and front office that I’m here to pitch, and I can, hopefully, make the rotation.”

Baker doesn’t have a timetable for McCullers to return. The injury forces Baker and pitching coach Josh Miller to make adjustments. With American League Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander signing with the Mets and McCullers rehabbing, the Astros are fortunate they have so much depth in their rotation.

“It’s a temporary setback,” Baker said. “We hope we get him back shortly after (opening day), and we hope we have him for the remainder of the year.

“There was a good chance Hunter might have been there in the first place. My plan for Hunter Brown is to win. Then we’ll see where we are innings-wise. He’s about to go into uncharted territory himself. It’s a learning experience for us, too (but), we’re counting on him. What we’re looking for now – what I’m always looking for – is a surprise person that’s gotten himself together over the winter or during spring training. This does create a temporary opportunity for somebody else.”

Perhaps that somebody could be Whitley, the 17th overall pick in 2016 who’s experienced problems on and off the field as the most highly touted prospect in the organization for a while. Whitley is healthy and impressive so far in spring training.

“He’s been on the radar for a long time,” Baker said. “This (McCullers’ injury) doesn’t really affect Whitley to me. Whitley has to stay healthy, and if he does, the sky’s the limit for what he does.”

The sky’s the limit for Brown, too, considering how well he pitched after being called up late last season. In seven games, including two starts, he threw 20.1 innings, allowed 15 hits, struck out 22, surrendered two earned runs, and compiled an 0.89 earned run average.

During the playoffs, Brown came out of the bullpen twice against the Mariners and Yankees. He threw 3.2 innings, gave up two hits and no runs. He wasn’t on the roster for the World Series victory over Philadelphia.

“Hunter threw the ball really good last year,” catcher Martín Maldonado said. “He was a young guy on a good team and got his feet wet. I expect great things from him.”

Reliever Ryne Stanek agrees with Maldonado’s assessment of Brown.

“I expect him to continue to grow,” Stanek said. “He’s showed he belongs here, and his ability fits in — continuing to learn and grow and mature as a pitcher. I think he’s going to be a big part of what we do here.”

No matter how many pitchers are competing for spots in the rotation, it’s not going to affect Brown’s mission in spring training.

“I have the same arsenal, and I’m just trying to refine it,” he said. “A lot of location stuff that I can clean up. I like where my stuff’s at, so, realistically, it’s how I’m going to attack the hitters, and that’s a focal point with me.

“Obviously, it’s a lot different having made my debut last year and coming off a World Series as a team. It changes your viewpoint on it. I feel like I’m in a good spot physically and mentally. I’m ready and excited to get the season going.”

Brown seems confident in his ability and plans to capitalize on beginning the season in the rotation.

“When you’re a minor leaguer, you kind of question whether your stuff is going to play at the big-league level in the short time I had last year,” he said. “I did see some success, and I know if I keep doing the right things I can find some success up here for a longer period of time.

“I’ve got to show Dusty and the staff what I can do, and they’ll make their decision from there. I’m not really thinking about that, and I’m not really sure, either. I’m just looking forward to an opportunity, try and earn a spot and go from there.”

Because he pitched most of last season in the minors, Brown got a head start on rules changes this season that are being utilized during the spring training schedule. He doesn’t seem too concerned about the pitch clock since he dealt with it last season.

“Yeah, I dealt with it all of last year,” he said. “I think it changes what you’re doing somewhat, but it causes you to pick up the pace, which can be good but challenging at times, but when you’re rolling it helps you out.

“I think it’s more out of the stretch when you’re dealing with runners when they start the clock, so if you have a guy you’re checking at first or second, and if you’re waiting for your signs, here we have a pitch count, so it’s a little different. In Triple-A, by the time you’re coming set, you might have only four or five seconds, which kind of changes how you’re going to hold the runners. At the big-league level, though, I don’t think the pitch count is going to be an issue.”

Since the Astros drafted him in 2016, Whitley has overcome a lot of issues – a 50-game suspension in 2018, being unable to play in 2020 because minor-leaguers were forced to sit out, and Tommy John surgery in 2021 that kept him out until June of last year.

“I feel good because I finally had a healthy offseason, first one in four years,” Whitley said. “I’m just trying to stay healthy. I feel like I have pretty good stuff right now. I feel really sharp. I was throwing bullpens (sessions) throughout the offseason, so I came here excited to show them what I’ve got. Every time I see myself throw, I like my stuff. I think my stuff is just as good as anybody’s.

“I’m ready to break that barrier. I’ve got to stay healthy and show them what I’ve got, especially with the work I put in during the offseason.”

Last year, Whitley pitched for three teams coming off Tommy John surgery. He got in 40 innings, finishing with an 0-2 record and a 6.53 ERA. He knows what McCullers is going through because both have been through Tommy John surgery and extensive rehab.

“I feel bad for him because I’ve gone through it myself,” Whitley said. “I know Lance works extremely hard, and he’s competitive, so I’m sure he’ll be back very soon.”

Baker and general manager Dana Brown have said positive things about Whitley before and during the first week of camp, but he knows he’s got a long way to go to make the team. He says he’s ready for the challenge.

“I worked very hard during the offseason to hear those kind of words, and it definitely feels great,” he said. “I wanted to come to camp with a clean slate, show everybody what I have right now and see if they can put me in a spot either in the bullpen or the rotation.”

Brown was hired as the general manager in late January. He used Whitley as an example of how some players can be late bloomers for one reason or another.

“Some of these guys pop sooner than others,” Brown said. “We still feel good that he’s got a power arm. He’s got a chance to be what we thought he could be. Some guys just take a little more time.

“He’s beginning to learn about the stress of a major league season. We still have confidence in Whitley. He’s got a big-time arm, a good fastball. We feel good, but it’s just going to take some time.”

The Astros have until March 30, when they begin the season against the White Sox at Minute Maid Park to figure out who’s in the rotation, the bullpen, or headed back to Sugar Land.

(John McClain writes four columns a week for He can be heard Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday on Sports Radio 610 and Thursday on Texans Radio. He does three weekly Houtopia podcasts for 610. He also can be read three times a week on

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