Indians.com is reporting that Matt Whitney has been returned to the Indians organization, and he'll be starting the 2008 season with the Double-A Akron Aeros rather than the (nominally) major league Washington Nationals.
Whitney was a stud hitting prospect when the Indians drafted him out of high school in the first round of the 2002 draft. After drawing comparisons to Manny Ramirez, he promptly broke his leg and has struggled for five years to produce anything resembling the work of an elite or even good prospect.
Whitney's value was further reduced when he was moved from 3B to 1B at the start of the 2007 season, in recognition of his reduced mobility. But that move may have contributed to a re-awakening of his bat, as he finally put up solid numbers in Lake County and performed even better once promoted to Kinston.
Even that performance, however, still left Whitney as a 23-year-old prospect who'd never seen Double-A, conquering the lower minors only at a relatively advanced age and in his fourth season at that level. Faced with a 40-man roster crunch, the Indians chose to expose Whitney to December's Rule 5 draft, in which both he and Aeros CF Brian Barton were selected by the Nationals and Cardinals respectively.
Barton has more or less thrived with the Cardinals and is more of a classic Rule 5 pick, with speed and defensive skills that make him useful even if only as the 25th man on the big-league roster. Whitney realistically was a very long-shot to stick with any major league club, however, having never faced even Double-A pitching and bringing little to any roster except his bat. Unsurprisingly, he struggled against major league pitching, even against advanced prospects and non-roster invitees.
Still just 24 years old, Whitney remains a real prospect even if not a particularly accomplished one as a minor leaguer. His 2007 performance leaves open the question, is he first-round talent, finally recovered and showing his real ability? Or is he a marginal talent, who was merely starting to peak at 23, doing well (but not dominating) against younger and less experienced players? The age-22 or -23 player who does well in A-ball is a cliche in terms of unfounded prospect hype, but Whitney's first-round talent and subsequent injury at least raises an eyebrow, even for an old-prospect skeptic like me. How he performs at age 24 in Double-A will tell the tale.