Spencer Howard is back to feeling like himself. In his second outing of the spring on Wednesday, Howard struck out four of the eight batters he faced while topping off at 96 mph on his fastball. He surrendered a two-run home run to the second hitter he faced, a result of falling behind early in the count and trying to make up for it with a middle-in fastball.
The 24-year-old rebounded in the second inning by striking out the side. Three of his four strikeouts came on the changeup, which looked like a tantalizing out pitch. Of the 23 strikeouts Howard posted in 2020, only three hitters went down on the changeup.
“It’s a pitch that I lost feel for. I don’t know where [my feel for the pitch] went last year,” Howard said. “but to have it back now is great. It’s a good weapon for me. Moving forward, I’ll try to rely on it more.”
Of the 439 pitches Howard threw in 2020, 70 were changeups. Most were against left-handed hitters (50). Overall, hitters swung at it over half the time but rarely whiffed (11.43 percent). He had a tough time avoiding the center of the plate with his changeup and as a result, hitters had a .429 batting average and slugged .667 against it. The problems had little to do with grip or mechanics.
“I think it was more just cleaning up my delivery overall and getting consistent with my release point,” Howard said. “I think a lot of it had to do with the shoulder thing last year or it just being a weird year in general as to why it left me. I’m happy with where I’m at right now and how it’s feeling.”
His slider, curveball and changeup all have the potential to be plus pitches, but the biggest question surrounding Howard is health. He’s going to be limited in the number of innings he can throw, but that doesn’t mean he’s unable to make an impact in the innings he does pitch. Howard dealt with weight loss, shoulder soreness and some serious self-doubt last season, but all that seems to be behind him.
“It’s not even close,” Howard said when asked to compare how he feels now to the way he felt last season. “This is the best I’ve felt physically in a long time. Everything just feels like it’s moving good. I’m just going to stick to my routine and try to ride this out.”
At the end of spring, Dave Dombrowski and the front office will have the unenviable task of remodeling the 40-man roster to ensure that the best non-roster invitees are wearing red pinstripes come April 1. They may need to part ways with prospects that are not expected to be contributors on the big-league roster this season or middling talents who are no longer a fit. The end result should be a roster that has significantly more pitching depth than they’ve had since 2019 when their window of contention officially opened up.
It leaves Howard in a tough spot. If Howard continues to look as dominate as he has this spring, it’s hard to argue that he’s not one of the eight or nine best relief pitchers the team could carry. His innings limit as well as the presence of Matt Moore and Chase Anderson make him an underdog for the one of the last two spots in the rotation, but a stint in the bullpen could prove to be an effective way to control his innings.
But what if, for example, the Phillies find it hard to pass up on adding both Brandon Kintzler and Tony Watson to the roster? Archie Bradley, Héctor Neris and Jose Alvarado are virtual locks to be in the bullpen. Vince Velasquez’s future in the organization is up in the air, but he’ll most likely find a home in the pen to begin the season. Keeping Connor Brogdon off the roster would be silly considering how dominant he was at the end of last season.
That leaves one or two spots for Sam Coonrod, JoJo Romero, Ramon Rosso, Howard, and an array of non-roster pitchers if the Phillies choose to go that route. The Phillies will have to ponder the question of whether or not there is a significant benefit to Howard spending time in Lehigh Valley. The Triple-A season is set to be delayed by a month, so for a short period of time, alternate sites will be in use.
The team could keep him stretched out in preparation for a starting opportunity, but what is the benefit running up his innings count to prepare him to pitch if he can contribute to the big club immediately? If the goal is to win now, a 24-year-old top pitching prospect who is clearly ready to pitch in the majors should be on the roster.
For once, it seems as though the Phillies have the kind of problems good teams have when it comes to pitching. Their depth is far from top-notch, but there will be a handful of pitchers at the alternate site at the start of the season who they’d love to have on the roster if size permits.
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