Much has been made recently about the Philadelphia Phillies inability to develop impact players, especially pitchers. Since 2006, only three notable pitchers have been developed by the Phillies and turned into above-average contributors in the majors; Cole Hamels, J.A. Happ and Aaron Nola.
General manager Matt Klentak and his staff hope that they have the prospect to change that narrative in Spencer Howard.
Keith Law of ESPN seems to believe that the Phillies have a special one in Howard, as evidenced by his analysis from the Arizona Fall League:
Spencer Howard (Phillies) missed several months this season because of a tired shoulder, but he has pitched at a high level since his return, and his AFL outing on Thursday was the best I’ve seen so far from my preseason No. 52 prospect. Howard’s velocity sat at 96 mph in the first inning and held 94-98 into the fifth. He worked up effectively with the pitch, and showed a legitimate four-pitch mix with a tight two-plane curveball at 76-78 mph, above-average slider at 83-88, and fringe-average changeup at 81-84 that showed some power fade at times. He can overthrow the slider, and in the fifth inning his command started to slip enough that he came out of the game. He cuts himself off just a little bit when he lands, enough that getting to his glove side requires effort, but he still works to both sides of the plate. If healthy he’s a No. 2 starter, and he’s just about ready to help.
The Phillies would be more than fine with Howard as a No. 2 starter, slotted behind the aforementioned Nola for the foreseeable future.
Howard, 23, was the Phillies second round selection in the 2017 MLB Draft out of Cal Poly. Howard was an unknown for the most part until he threw a no-hitter for Lakewood in the 2018 South Atlantic League playoffs. After that, his ranking soared and he caught the attention of many within the organization and fanbase. The Phillies obviously felt confident enough in Howard that they were willing to send top pitching prospect Sixto Sanchez, along with Will Stewart, to Miami in exchange for J.T. Realmuto back in February. He is currently slotted as the organization’s No. 2 prospect behind only Alec Bohm, according to MLB Pipeline.
As Law mentions, Howard did face injuries this past season, but that didn’t stop him from putting up monster numbers when he was on the mound. In 15 starts across four levels that spanned from a rehab assignment at Rookie Ball to Double-A Reading, Howard posted a 2.03 ERA with 11.9 strikeouts per nine innings.
The biggest red flag with Howard going into the season was his control, but he silenced those doubts with a 0.83 WHIP and 2.0 walks per nine innings. For comparison, he posted a 1.25 WHIP and 3.2 walks per nine innings in 2018.
Howard’s final start of 2019 may have been his best. He took the ball in Game 1 of the Eastern League Divisional series and allowed one run over seven innings, surrendering just two hits and two walks, with 12 strikeouts. His bullpen would blow the game though, and Reading would go on to get swept by Trenton.
The Phillies need Howard at some point in 2020. Outside of Nola – who, by his 2018 standards, took a step back in 2019 – the team has a lot of questions in the rotation. The free-agent pitching market is loaded, headlined by Houston Astros ace Gerrit Cole, but as mentioned during the season, the Phillies need to develop cheap, above-average talent in order to compete with Atlanta and Washington long-term.
Howard is gaining valuable experience in the Arizona Fall League, which is good considering he only has a handful of Double-A starts on his résumé. Fans should get a chance to see Howard in Spring Training as he will try to impress his new manager and pitching coach.
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