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How do Phillies plan to manage Spencer Howard’s workload in 2021?


Spencer Howard debuted with the Phillies in 2020. (Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire)

From a long-term perspective, the Philadelphia Phillies are excited about what RHP Spencer Howard, the top prospect in the organization, will provide.

They are well aware, though, that they find themselves in a strange situation with the 24-year-old in 2021.

On one hand, the Phillies will have to be cautious with how they push all of their starting pitchers in 2021, considering the expectation is they’ll go back to a 162-game slate after playing just 60 in 2020. That’s one of the reasons that they’ve added a slew of veteran arms – Matt Moore, Chase Anderson, Iván Nova – to the organization and haven’t ruled out using a six-man rotation at times in 2021.

But Howard requires a more specific plan than Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler, Zach Eflin and Vince Velasquez. He’s had arm injuries in consecutive seasons and only pitched 24 1/3 innings at the major league level in 2020. Before COVID-19, the Phillies planned to limit Howard’s innings to 150 or less innings in 2020. This time around, the number of innings the Phillies will feel comfortable with having Howard throw is probably significantly lower, given how little he pitched last season.

So how does Joe Girardi plan to balance wanting to use his best starting options, but making sure Howard is available for a potential postseason run?

“I think things have a way of working their way out,” Girardi said Wednesday. “Instead of coming up with exact plans, sometimes it just irons itself out, so you have to have the ability to be adjustable if you need to be adjustable. So obviously, we have a target area for Spencer…we want him to go out and compete and pitch the best that he can to help us win games and we’ll go from there. But he will be watched, and we’ll have a plan for him, but [we’ll be] ready to adjust it if we need to.”

Typically, things do have a way of working themselves out. At this time last year, the Phillies were in a similar predicament with Howard, it appeared. Then a once-in-100 year pandemic hit, forcing the season to be shortened, and even once it was played, Howard dealt with a shoulder injury which limited him to just parts of six starts. No one is suggesting that COVID-19 was “things working their way out,” but Girardi is correct in saying that you have to be flexible over the course of a 162-game season, and there’s not a ton of use in overthinking situations that may or may not present themselves in the future.

That said, is it out of the question that Howard turns the corner in 2021 at the major league level and is the team’s third best pitcher when he’s available? Not necessarily, and the Phillies presumably would like to avoid a situation like those of Stephen Strasburg or Matt Harvey, who hit innings limits early in their careers prior to the postseason. The last thing the Phillies want to do is be tied 1-1 in a playoff series, and be unsure about whether it’s best for Howard’s long-term health for him to pitch in a swing game.

At the same time, president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski says it’s important to formulate a plan that allows the Phillies to be in the pennant race – at this point, there will only be five playoff spots in each league once again – when the calendar flips to September.

“We have talked about it in generalities, we don’t have a specific plan as of yet. There’s been a lot of other things going on for us here, trying to put the club together,” Dombrowski said. “It’s something that Joe has had discussions with his staff about…[general manager] Sam [Fuld] has been involved…but we haven’t sat together and come up with that finalized plan.

“There’s a lot of different alternatives…skipping starts…pitching out of the bullpen…shortening starts…but we haven’t really come up with what we’re going to do as of yet. And it will be something that we do prior to getting into spring training. We want to make sure that we’re in a position where first of all, we want to be playing for something come September, you have to get there. And then, you have to be in a position where you’re ready to compete at that time. So you kind of combine those different thought processes into making it work.”

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