It appears that the Philadelphia Phillies have actual depth in their starting rotation all of a sudden. Spring training disclaimer, but newcomers Matt Moore and Chase Anderson have pitched well and looked sharp. It would appear that Moore and Anderson have all but locked up the 4th and 5th spots in the rotation. Vince Velasquez will almost certainly be relegated to a long relief/sixth starter role.
One major question still remains. What happens now to Spencer Howard?
The Phillies top prospect made his debut under less than ideal circumstances in 2020. Howard flashed some potential, but he struggled as a whole, finishing with a 5.92 ERA over six starts and 24 ⅓ innings. His fastball velocity was down and dipped lower in each start, averaging out at 94. Howard’s stint was cut short when he was shut down with shoulder soreness.
Now, Howard’s velocity appears to be reaching back to his normal upper 90s, routinely hitting 95 and touching 96 MPH. Howard told The Inquirer’s Matt Breen that he is in much better shape this year than he was last year.
“This is the best I’ve felt physically in a long time. Everything just feels like it’s moving good and I’m going to stick to my routine and try to ride this out.” Full story from Matt Breen- Phillies 6, Tigers 4: Spencer Howard strikes out four, feels ‘not even close’ to how he did last season (inquirer.com)
That said, keep in mind that Howard was scratched from his next start with back spasms and is still not cleared to pitch.
The Phillies are going to have a decision on their hands. Do they send Howard to Triple A to start the year, a level he has never pitched at? Or, do they keep him on the Major League roster but in a bullpen role where the 24 year-old can help immediately? Both options also rely on Howard being healthy when the season starts.
The main goal for Howard no matter where he pitches in 2021 should be to work on building back up his stamina. Howard was essentially pitching in glorified scrimmages at the alternate site last year due to the lack of a minor league season. That was after he already missed some of 2019 with an injury. All of this goes a long way to say that Howard did not pitch in a normal amount of games the last two seasons. In fact, he’s pitched in just 25 games since the beginning of 2019. Those games span High A, AA, Arizona Fall League, and MLB.
The lack of consistent innings showed in Howard’s brief MLB appearance. His velocity was down as mentioned before. His fastball velocity also sharply dipped the later he went into games. In addition to the velocity, Howard’s command noticeably deteriorated as his starts went on. A somewhat normal offseason of preparation should help Howard. Most importantly, Howard needs to get consistent innings to build back his strength.
Start him in AAA
This is the safer option of the two. Howard would be able to start the season fresh and continue to refine his repertoire along with building up stamina to go deeper into games. He could pitch in a lower pressure environment and still be ready for a call to the majors. But, obviously, this would mean he would not be making an immediate impact on the Phillies.
An important thing to consider is that Howard is currently on the 40 man roster. The Phillies are currently in the midst of a roster crunch that will only get more complicated with additions from their pool of non-roster invitees. Room will have to be made for Brandon Kintzler and Tony Watson among possible others. If the Phillies decide to give Odubel Herrera the center field job, they will need to make room for him too.
The Phillies can’t really afford to use too many spots on players who aren’t immediately contributing because of the crunch. There’s prospects who aren’t ready that need to be protected from the Rule 5 draft and there’s veterans that can contribute to the MLB team. If the Phillies believe that Howard is ready for the majors, as they clearly did last season, the roster crunch may force their hand.
Put him in the MLB bullpen
This option is more unorthodox but may be the best option for both team and player. Howard could continue to adapt to the MLB level competition and the Phillies would be receiving immediate impact from their top prospect. However, they would need to be very careful about his usage. Remember, relievers who are warming up are still using bullets. Howard would have to come into a game if he was warmed up and shouldn’t be asked to do so more than once in a game. Also, he would probably be limited to two, possibly three games a week depending on how many innings each appearance is.
Howard should still be in the Phillies long term projections for their starting rotation. The Phillies need to put his health and development first and foremost. They need him to develop into the frontline starter he has the potential to be. A bullpen role would most likely be temporary and only for this season. A top pitching prospect going to the bullpen out of necessity only to return to the rotation is a bit unusual but is not without precedent.
David Price was the number one overall pick for the Tampa Bay Rays (then the Devil Rays) in 2007. One year later, he was in the Rays major league bullpen during their run to the World Series. The Rays identified that Price could make an immediate impact but wasn’t necessary for the rotation, so they utilized him as a high leverage, multi-inning reliever. He appeared in five games down the stretch and surrendered 4 runs in 14 innings pitched. The lefty also appeared in five games in the postseason and allowed one run on two hits in 5 2/3 innings pitched. Price then returned to being a starter the following season and is a five time all star and a Cy Young winner.
Derek Lowe debuted in a relief role with the Seattle Mariners in 1997. After being traded to the Red Sox in the same year, Lowe bounced back and forth from the starting rotation and the bullpen until 1999. Lowe then became an elite closer until losing the job in 2001. He then asked to be returned to a starting role, and in 2002 went 21-8 with a 2.52 ERA. Lowe made 334 starts over the next nine years and pitched to a 4.01 ERA.
The circumstances surrounding Price’s debut and Lowe’s career differ from Howard’s situation, but there are some similarities that can ease some fears about moving Howard to the ‘pen temporarily. There is more than one example of a young starter who converted to a bullpen role and then back to a starter while succeeding in both roles.
The Seranthony effect
Seranthony Dominguez is an example of a starter turned reliever from the Phillies own system. However, Dominguez was moved to relief permanently. Dominguez was electric when he debuted in 2018, providing enormous value as a high leverage reliever who could go more than one inning. He was 10th in WAR among all MLB relievers in his first real crack at the bullpen. His previous history as a starter no doubt helped Dominguez in his ability to go multiple innings.
But, Dominguez hasn’t quite been the same since his rookie year. He appeared in 27 games in 2019 and pitched to a 4.01 ERA. His strikeout rate dropped from 32% to 26.4%. Dominguez lost his crisp control and is now over a year removed from pitching in a big league game as he tries to work back from a UCL strain. His heavy workload as a new reliever when the Phillies had no other effective options almost assuredly contributed to his elbow problems.
Health comes first
Dominguez now serves as a cautionary tale for the Phillies with Howard. Dominguez was probably always destined for a relief role, but his struggles paint a picture of the danger of pushing former starters too far in the bullpen, or any pitcher for that matter. It was tempting and sometimes necessary for him to go multiple innings. But, we can now see the effect that has had on Dominguez. If the Phillies do choose to use Howard in the bullpen, they must resist the urge to overuse him if he is extremely effective and remember that his future is in the rotation, hopefully in the front of it.