Following an underwhelming beginning to his major-league career, the Philadelphia Phillies would benefit greatly from a strong 2021 campaign out of top pitching prospect Spencer Howard.
However, banking on the right-hander to be a full-time fixture in the starting rotation would be an extremely risky bet.
The 24-year-old Howard is a huge talent and has excelled in the minor leagues. At the same time, battles with injury and a limited, inconsistent workload over the past few years could prevent him from contributing in an expanded role at the major-league level this upcoming season.
The Phillies promoted Howard to the majors this past August, and, while he flashed some of the stuff that has made him such a highly-touted young pitcher, he largely struggled before finishing the season on the injured list due to right shoulder stiffness. He ended the season with a 5.92 ERA in 24 1/3 innings over six starts.
Though Howard did have a relatively disappointing start to his big-league career, that’s not to say he won’t become a legitimately effective starter in the majors one day. But that will likely not be the case in the upcoming season.
Throughout his minor-league career from 2017-2019, Howard overpowered hitters, tossed postseason gems — including a no-hitter in the Single-A South Atlantic League playoffs in 2018 — and continued to get better each season, posting a 2.03 ERA with a 0.831 WHIP in 15 starts across three levels in 2019. His biggest issue, however, was that he never accumulated a large innings total in a season.
The highest inning total of Howard’s career was 126, which came in the 2018 regular and postseason. Right shoulder injury limited him to just 99 1/3 innings between the minors and the Arizona Fall League the next year. Of course, the unusual 2020 season interrupted Howard’s spring training and only saw Howard throw 24 1/3 innings once games began.
Even if the right-hander can quickly adjust to the major-league level on a game-by-game basis and perform at the success rate he found in the minors, Howard will almost certainly be on some kind of innings limit in 2021. Expecting him to jump into a 150-inning role — Phillies pitcher Vince Velasquez threw 146 2/3 innings in 2018, for reference — would be a huge ask, and could even put Howard at risk for further injury to his shoulder.
That kind of workload is one that Howard will have to work his way toward. Perhaps he’d be closer to reaching that goal if not for the COVID-19 pandemic interfering with his season this past year. But the reality is that he is probably not ready to pitch at the volume of a full-time starting pitcher in the majors this upcoming season.
There are still some ways the Phillies can utilize Howard’s power arm in the meantime, and they could be very valuable to the team if he pitches well. They could put him on a strict innings limit and shut him down once he hits in, similar to what the Washington Nationals did with Stephen Strasburg in 2012. Or, to avoid missing Howard down the stretch and in a potential playoff run like the Nationals did with Strasburg, the Phillies could delay the start of Howard’s season and have him spend time at extended spring training before he pitches in the regular season.
A six-man rotation is probably a bit less likely to happen, but could be another way the Phillies keep Howard from throwing too many innings. They could also piggyback Howard and another “starter” — Velasquez could make sense in this role — who could each throw about four innings every outing. The Phillies could even make Howard a reliever in an attempt to let him build innings without overwhelming his arm.
Whatever the case may be, the Phillies will have to be careful with how they manage Howard this season. He’s too talented for them not to be.
The growing pains are far from ideal, but the Phillies are best served with Howard pitching as a regular starter in the future. To help make sure that happens, they shouldn’t bank on being able to push his innings total in 2021.
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