There are no shortage of uncertainties for the Philadelphia Phillies as they enter the 2020-21 off-season. After a 28-32 campaign in which they failed to reach the postseason for the ninth year in a row (the second-longest drought in Major League Baseball), the Phils have more questions than answers in front of them.
Will the front office prioritize signing J.T. Realmuto to a free agent contract after failing to sign him to an extension? Will the 2021 payroll decrease from 2020? If so, by how much? Do they re-sign shortstop Didi Gregorius to a free agent deal or will they fill that vital role with a lesser free agent, or internally with Jean Segura? What kind of big league starter will they sign to replace the departed Jake Arrieta? How do they fix one of the worst bullpens in MLB history? And perhaps most importantly, who will be making these decisions in the front office? Who will be the team’s next general manager? Its next president of baseball operations?
All those issues will require an answer over the next few months, but there is one huge unanswered question that has gotten lost in the shuffle.
What is the future of starting pitcher Spencer Howard?
Howard is the Phillies’ top pitching prospect and, prior to the 2020 season, was ranked as No. 27 by Baseball America, No. 34 by MLB Pipeline and No. 36 by Baseball Prospectus. Most prospect experts believe Howard has top-of-the-rotation potential.
Late last year, BA’s Josh Norris wrote, “Howard’s arsenal is fronted by a fastball he throws in the mid-to-upper 90s and is backed by a trio of offspeed pitches that each project as above-average but flash a tick better.” Back in March, MLB Pipeline’s scouting report said, “Assuming his command continues to improve, he has the chance to be a frontline starter.” But as the 2020 closed, Howard did not cement himself as a cornerstone pitcher and, in fact, raised more questions about his future than he answered. He failed to pitch five innings in five of those starts and had a 5.92 ERA and 5.86 FIP in his 24 1⁄3 innings of work. He was worth 0.0 fWAR and 0.1 bWAR this season and ended the year on the injured list.
What was supposed to be an exciting coming out party for the Phils’ top pitching prospect turned into a season in which he couldn’t stay healthy and, when on the hill, was largely ineffective.
Scouting reports indicated he threw in the mid-to-upper 90s in the minors and would often hit 100 on the radar gun. His average velocity this year was 94.5 mph. On the surface that seems fine, but in a number of starts this season, he saw a precipitous drop in his fastball velocity as the game wore on.
Spencer Howard’s fastball velocity diminished in every inning Monday night. Joe Girardi wants to find out why that happened. That, and more, in today’s Extra Innings #Phillies newsletter from @PhillyInquirer: https://t.co/XW3gD2WWLX— Scott Lauber (@ScottLauber) September 2, 2020
After an appearance on August 31 against the Washington Nationals, RotoWire noted the drop as well.
The Phillies’ top pitching prospect averaged 95.3 mph and touched 96.5 mph with his heater when he struck out the side in the first inning, but his average fastball velocity dipped to 94.6 mph in the second inning, 93.7 in the third, 92.2 in the fourth and 91.9 in the fifth. He didn’t reach 95 mph with a fastball after the second inning.
In order for Howard to be the top-of-the-rotation arm the Phillies need him to be, his fastball has to be an offering that routinely touches 96-97 mph while hitting triple digits on occasion.
It’s fair to note that this off-season was unusual in many ways due to the COVID-19 pandemic and, with just three weeks of Summer Camp to prepare for the season, it’s possible Howard’s shoulder never got fully revved up. But it’s also fair to note other pitchers didn’t experience that kind of velocity drop, too.
The Phillies have not linked any in-game velocity drop to a specific injury, but it is lost on no one that Howard has missed parts of each of the last two seasons with shoulder issues. He missed two months in 2019 with a shoulder strain that limited him to just 71 minor league innings, and the most innings he’s ever thrown in a single season is 112, in 2018.
Howard and the Phillies did not believe this year’s shoulder stiffness was as serious as last year’s injury, and Howard was activated off the IL for the final series of the season in Tampa against the Rays to be used out of the bullpen, although his number was not called by Joe Girardi in any of those final three losses.
Anytime a 24-year-old pitcher experiences shoulder issues two straight years, it’s cause for concern and his future durability is called into question.
No Other Prospects
It’s not fair to bring up the Sixto Sanchez trade when discussing Spencer Howard, but it’s important to remember the Phils felt they could move Sanchez to Miami in the J.T. Realmuto trade because they believed they had another top-of-the-rotation arm in their farm system in Howard. Ironically, general manager Matt Klentak and the rest of the front office had concerns about Sanchez’ durability, and believed that, in Howard, they had another potential ace on their hands.
They may ultimately be proven correct. Howard does have immense talent and, if he can stay healthy, he can lessen the sting of losing Sixto. The Phillies desperately hope this is the case because there is no one currently in the farm system who is remotely close to the big leagues with No. 1 or No. 2 starter potential.
Adonis Medina was called up for an emergency start this year out of necessity. Against the Toronto Blue Jays he gave up two runs on three hits and three walks in just four innings. He received that promotion even though, in 2019, he posted a 4.94 ERA in 21 starts at Double-A Reading. This year’s first round draft pick, Mick Abel, was drafted to be a potential top-of-the-rotation arm, but he’s just a year out of high school and is likely at least two years away from the Majors, if not three or four. Right-hander Francisco Morales was an international signee back in 2016-17 and he could start the 2021 season in Reading, although with the ‘20 season being a lost year for minor league prospects, it’s possible he goes back to High-A Clearwater. Guys like Enyel De Los Santos and lefty Erik Miller have potential, but much work remains.
The 2021 Rotation
Next year’s starting rotation will be fronted by Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler and Zach Eflin, but with the departure of Jake Arrieta and the inability of Vince Velasquez to cement himself as a member of next year’s starting five, it’s imperative Howard emerge as a viable fourth or fifth starter.
Howard should not be expected to blow past 150 innings next season. In fact, it’s likely the Phillies limit his innings and pitches, given his shoulder issues, but that presents a problem for Philadelphia. This was a season in which the Phils were going to increase his workload so as to progress him to a full workload hopefully by 2021. But with COVID and his shoulder stiffness, the Phillies can ill afford to push his arm too hard. Doing so would risk further injury and set the young right-hander back even further.
Whoever the new general manager will be, a replacement for Jake Arrieta will need to be acquired, and a back-up plan for Spencer Howard should be accounted for as well. If the Phils get more than 100 innings from Howard next season, that’s gravy, but he cannot be counted on to do more than that.
Player Development Failures
Let’s take a quick look at the young, home-grown pitchers the Phillies have successfully developed over the last 10 years.
Aaron Nola. Um... Zach Eflin? Maybe? Can anyone claim Eflin has truly been developed yet?
The Phils have had some pitchers come through the system and up to the Majors in recent seasons who flashed great stuff but didn’t progress. The ballad of Nick Pivetta will be sung by those who suffered through the torturous five-year rebuild, a pitcher with great stuff who was never able to put it all together. Velasquez looked like a piece to build around, but he has run out of time. Jerad Eickhoff was decent for a time, but injuries ended any hopes that he would be a long-term solution. Players of varying skill levels like Ben Lively, Jake Thompson, Mark Appel, Drew Anderson and others also came through the Phils’ clubhouse doors and left to minimal success.
There are any number of reasons why those pitchers didn’t succeed, but it’s not lost on anyone that the Phillies have been unable to develop the “waves of pitching” fans were promised by the Klentak regime during the rebuild. Howard clearly is more talented than any of the names mentioned in the previous paragraph, but it’s fair to wonder why anyone should be confident the Phils can help him tap into his incredible potential.
It’s certainly way too soon to be overly pessimistic about Spencer Howard’s longterm prospects. Given a normal off-season of preparation, perhaps he comes out hurling upper-90s heat in spring training with three dominant off-speed pitches and gives the team 120-140 solid innings in 2021. The odds of that happening are just as good as the other side of that coin — another injury-plagued season in which Howard’s velocity issues scare the living daylights out of the front office and the team’s fans.
If the Phillies are going to break their nine-year postseason drought, they need Howard to be a solid No. 3 or 4 starter next year. If he delivers on his promise as a potential No. 1 or 2, the Phils could be something special, but much remains to be seen regarding the future of Spencer Howard.