Phillies to manage ‘tricky formula’ with Spencer Howard

Spencer Howard #48 of the Philadelphia Phillies (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
Spencer Howard #48 of the Philadelphia Phillies (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images) /

When healthy, top-ranked Philadelphia Phillies prospect Spencer Howard looked strong this spring training, logging strikeouts across two-thirds of his nine outs recorded.

However, the right-hander was limited to just two appearances and three innings pitched overall due to back spasms. That, coupled with a noticeable velocity decline late in his rookie season, is keeping the Phillies cautious entering the 2021 season.

The Phillies will juggle the present and future with prospect Spencer Howard.

The Phillies optioned Howard to Triple-A Lehigh Valley last week. They plan to limit his innings in 2021 — mostly using him out of the bullpen — but still view him as a staple in their rotation for years to come, starting in 2022. Phillies President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski called it a “tricky formula” on Tuesday, as the organization keeps one eye on this season and another on next season and beyond.

“I think in today’s game, even though you have a number of innings in mind for year-to-year, we are such more sophisticated with the medical devices we have,” Dombrowski said. “You can have a pulse on that. We measure spin rates, so if they drop down significantly, there is some indication.”

Dombrowski said the team will keep a close watch on the amount of innings Howard throws over the coming months. If or when promoted back to the big-league club, his primary role would be as a middle or long reliever.

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“If he’s throwing the way that he is capable, and we think he will, if we ever had to use [Vince] Velasquez in the rotation, he would be a real good guy to step into that type of role,” Dombrowski said.

Starting this season is not entirely out of the question — but if Howard does, it would only be for a two- or three-inning-type appearance. Howard could also come in for one inning, but the club would never rush him into a bullpen appearance, either.

“The problem is, if you have him starting right away and stretch him out to 5 or 6 innings, you burn through those innings before you can really blink,” Dombrowski said. “[Also,] we will never with him just say, ‘Crank it up in 12 pitches.’ We discussed that with him and internally. He will get all the proper time he needs to warm up. It’s extremely important for him at this stage of his career, because he has never done that.”

Dombrowski acknowledged that Howard could end up pitching more than what is currently planned, assuming he is in good health and is feeling good. “Eventually,” he said, “he will be a very important member of the Phillies organization as we move forward.”

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