Phillies caution will benefit Spencer Howard in long run

Despite a potential trade destination popping up in the American League, the Philadelphia Phillies appear to be adding Vince Velasquez to their 26-man Opening Day roster. This decision not so much stems from the right-hander’s success this spring — logging only 3 2/3 innings and having not appeared since March 9 due to injury — but rather the team’s caution toward their No. 1-ranked prospect, Spencer Howard.

The Phillies are doing the right thing with their top prospect Spencer Howard.

The Phillies will rely on Velasquez (who is now healthy) as a long-reliever — a role more important than ever as starting pitchers simply are not accustomed to a six-month season. David Hale could potentially join Velasquez in a similar long-relief role, but that would mean one of JoJo Romero or Sam Coonrod would have to start the season in Triple-A.

If Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler, Zach Eflin, Matt Moore, or Chase Anderson cannot make a scheduled start, Velasquez will likely be the first option manager Joe Girardi turns to.

Following the 2020 season, Howard was a very much in the rotation mix and one would think the Phillies would surely want to have him at least “waiting in the wings” to make a start if need be — especially before offering Velasquez the spot start. Instead, the Phillies will have the recently optioned Howard start the season in Triple-A … preparing for a call up out of the bullpen.

Phillies President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski described the situation to The Athletic’s Matt Gelb as being “complicated.” He says the organization does not envision Howard being a regular starting pitcher for the short-term (2021), but does think he will be one in the long-term.

“We also look at him, and we think he’s ready to pitch in the big leagues,” Dombrowski told Gelb. “But he only pitched such limited innings this spring that we figured that it benefits him to go out and pitch rather than try to rush it. He’s healthy. The other day he threw great. But we’re going to increase his innings, and we have a limit there in our own minds.”

The Phillies wanted to make sure Howard’s innings were limited from the get-go this offseason, amid concerns of his velocity significantly falling off in the latter weeks of the 2020 season. The right-hander experiencing back spasms this spring training only made the decision to be cautious easier.

So, they will use him as a “bullpen guy” who can throw three-innings, or as few as an inning on occasion. “However, when I say that, it would not be ever like: crank it up real fast, 12 pitches, you’re ready to go into the game, like a reliever would normally be,” added Dombrowski, who continued that he expects the 24-year-old to return to the majors at some point in 2021.

Dombrowski did not rule out to Gelb of Howard starting a game in the big-leagues this year, but he wants him to be ready “to be part of the bullpen to win.”

“We don’t look at him being a starting pitcher all year long because he just goes through the innings too quickly,” he continued.

The Phillies are making the right call here. As CBS3’s Pat Gallen notes, the team is essentially doing the reverse of what the Washington Nationals did with Stephen Strasburg early in his career. The Nationals used Strasburg early and often, and ultimately tired him out.

If the Phillies “play the cards” right with Howard, they will only prolong his career and ensure it is not injury-prone in the process.