Spencer Howard emerged as the Philadelphia Phillies top pitching prospect during his dominant 2019 campaign. The 23-year-old right-hander showed that he is capable of success at three minor league levels and in the Arizona Fall League. Now, many have begun to wonder what kind of impact Howard can have in the majors.
Howard, the Phillies second-round pick in the 2017 draft, started last season with the Clearwater Threshers, posting a 2.25 ERA in his first four starts before a shoulder injury sidelined him for just over two months. Upon returning, Howard made two short appearances in the Gulf Coast League, and was sent back to Clearwater at the beginning of July.
Three starts, 19 innings and zero earned runs later, the Phillies sent Howard to Double-A Reading where he would finish the regular season. A promotion to Double-A is a big step in gauging what an organization thinks of its prospects. It was clear that the Phillies felt that Howard could handle the higher competition.
In his final six starts of the regular season, Howard tossed 30.2 innings with an ERA of 2.35 for Reading. He then capped off his stellar minor league season with an excellent performance in the Eastern League playoffs. He only surrendered one run across seven innings, giving up two hits and two walks. Howard struck out a career-high 12 batters in that outing as well.
Between the regular season and postseason, Howard had an ERA of 1.96 over 78 innings with 12.2 K/9 across three levels. Following this career year, he threw 21.1 innings in the Arizona Fall League. He only allowed five earned runs in his six fall appearances.
Howard used his advanced arsenal to achieve his success in 2019. He has three above-average pitches and a lesser fourth option that he can use to keep batters guessing and get swings and misses.
Touching 98 mph in his postseason start, Howard’s fastball is his best pitch. He can throw it for strikes, as well as elevate it out of the zone for strikeouts when needed.
His changeup looked like almost as much of a strength near the end of the year. When it is working, Howard can make hitters look pretty foolish, as shown in this pitch from the Arizona Fall League:
The curveball is another pitch that Howard uses to miss bats. He also will throw in a slider that is not as good as his curve, but can still be effective.
2020 and beyond
Howard, the No. 1 prospect in the February 2020 edition of the Phillies Nation top Phillies prospects list, is a legitimate power pitcher that could help the Phillies rotation from his first outing. The only thing keeping him from doing that is the number of innings he’ll throw.
Because of the injury he suffered, Howard threw a total of just 99.1 innings in 2019. He has never thrown more than 112 in a season. The team will not want to over-pitch their young stud. To make sure that he can stay healthy, the team will end up putting an innings limit on Howard, which Phillies officials indicated could max out at 140-150 innings at the most.
The club will take things slowly with Howard, but he will make a difference if he can stay healthy. He will likely throw limited innings in the minors to start 2020, but will almost definitely be on the major league roster at some point this season.
It will be interesting to see how the team will utilize Howard’s available innings. He may start but not go out for long outings, at least for the beginning. Maybe the team uses him as a reliever in his rookie season in order to preserve his arm from overuse. The Phillies will have to make some kind of compromise this season to help the team but also keep Howard’s long-term health in mind.
From there, Howard could be a top-of-the-rotation type for the Phillies for years to come if things go right. He has the stuff to make that kind of impact in the future. At the very least, he’s an upgrade to the pitchers that are currently slotted for the back-end of the Phillies rotation.
No matter what role he takes this season or how many innings he throws in 2020, the talent is there for Howard. And the first time since Aaron Nola in 2015, the Phillies have a real difference-making starting pitcher on the verge of a call-up.
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