In the sport of baseball, few things are as valuable to a club as a top prospect with the genuine potential and ability to become a Major League starter. Some teams struggle to acquire and develop a single prospect of high-quality, while other organizations are blessed with multiple top prospects at the same time.
The Phillies are lucky enough that they currently find themselves in the second category, with Spencer Howard, Alec Bohm and Bryson Stott claiming the top three spots on their prospect list - all currently projected to become legitimate MLB players. But while Stott is the clear #3 prospect in the system, most writers and fans alike are in debate over who exactly sits at the very top of the Phillies’ prospect list.
With two prospects so equal in talent and projected ability, the debate really comes down to how to prioritize the value each player brings to the organization. It’s nitpicking at its finest, and it’s a fantastic problem to have.
Alec Bohm was drafted in the first round (third overall) by the Phillies in 2018 out of Wichita State. His first season of professional baseball was good, but his sophomore season is what has really set him apart from the rest of the pack of position players. He jumped three levels in 2019, starting with Class A Lakewood and finishing the season with Double A Reading. He was a Florida State League All Star, an Arizona Fall League All Star, represented the Phillies at the 2019 Futures Game in Cleveland, and was named MLB’s top third base prospect heading into the 2020 season. He also received the 2019 Paul Owens Award, as the Phillies’ best minor league position player.
Spencer Howard was drafted in the second round by the Phillies in 2017 out of California Polytechnic State University. Similar to Bohm, his second season of professional baseball (2018) has been his most successful season. The gem of his career, so far, was his no-hitter for Lakewood in the 2018 playoffs. In that game, he allowed only two baserunners and struck out nine in the complete-game shutout performance. He’s currently considered MLB’s ninth best right handed pitching prospect.
Both Bohm and Howard were named as MiLB’s organizational All Stars for the 2019 season.
Here’s how some of the national Top 100 Prospects Lists have ranked the two players:
The Athletic (Keith Law)
The national lists aren’t the only place where opinions on the two are extremely close. I posted a poll on Twitter, asking who the fans think the top prospect is. With over 1,100 votes, Bohm barely edged out Howard as the top choice.
I’m working on a prospect piece for @TheGoodPhight and I need your opinion!— Allie (@mustang__sallie) February 17, 2020
Who is currently the Phillies’ top prospect?
Feel free to drop your reasoning below!
Amongst the entire staff at The Good Phight, Bohm was also the winner by a small margin, receiving 58% of the votes while Howard received 42%.
With the competition between them so close, I figured why not put all the cards on the table and make the case for each player as the top prospect. When The Good Phight ranked the Phillies’ top prospects, votes for the top prospect were, predictably, split in half. Here’s why each member of the voting team preferred the player they did.
The Argument for Spencer Howard
Before I say anything else, I want to preface this argument by saying I genuinely believe that the Phillies have a “1A, 1B” situation. While it feels like a cop-out answer, it’s also true. I could legitimately make a case for Bohm to be the top prospect as easily as I can make my argument for Howard. But when it comes down to it, the qualities I personally prioritize put Howard on top.
There are two main reasons why I rank Spencer Howard above Alec Bohm:
1. Long-Term Placement
One of the main concerns most people have with Bohm is his defensive play. While he has the ability to be an elite hitter, his fielding at third base is definitely a weakness. It’s certainly not going to ever be something that holds him back from making the Major League roster, but it’s important to take into consideration the fact that there already are questions about his potential to remain at the hot corner forever. Will the Phillies eventually move him to first base, or use him as a DH when it makes its way into the National League? Only time will tell.
On the other hand, Spencer Howard is currently a pitcher. When Spencer Howard makes it to the Major Leagues either this season or in 2021, he will be a pitcher. And 10 years from now, Spencer Howard will still be a pitcher. The organization is not going to have to teach him how to play another position. There is no doubt, there are no questions. We’ve seen what changing positions can do to a player like Rhys Hoskins, who was bounced back and forth between left field and first base for a while. Even if Bohm never actually moves from third, not having that concern is a huge plus for Howard.
2. Organizational Needs
This reason, at a basic level, really has nothing to do with either Howard or Bohm. It has to do with the Phillies’ Major League talent and where they are lacking.
Right now, the team isn’t in dire need of a third baseman. The plan is for Jean Segura to start Spring Training at third while Scott Kingery starts at second. If Segura isn’t able to play there, the two will switch. So far, Segura has seemed more than capable and Kingery made 41 appearances at third in 2019, most of them as the starter. Once Bohm is MLB-ready, he will clearly be the best option for the position. But there’s a huge difference between wanting a prospect to be MLB-ready and needing a prospect to be MLB-ready. While neither Segura nor Kingery are All Star-caliber third basemen, with potentially two players capable of handling the hot corner for an entire season, the need for Bohm to be MLB-ready in 2020 (or even 2021) isn’t desperate.
The starting pitching situation, however, is desperate. Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler, Jake Arrieta and Zach Eflin are clear starters for 2020. But the fifth rotation spot is a huge toss-up between Nick Pivetta and Vince Velazquez, neither of whom had an inspiring 2019 season. That’s not to mention the questions surrounding how Arrieta, Velazquez and Pivetta will perform in 2020. Because the front office only added one starter to the roster this off-season, there’s at least one huge hole that still needs to be filled. In addition to the pressing need of a reliable fifth starter for 2020, Jake Arrieta’s contract expires at the end of this year. Unless the Phillies bring up a prospect, make a trade deadline move this season (or this upcoming winter), or spend big in next year’s free agency class, the 2021 rotation will then have at least two huge question marks. With either a trade or a free agency signing, adding a quality starting pitcher from outside the organization is going to cost a lot, either in assets or capital. Adding a quality starting pitcher from the minor leagues will cost nothing but a 25-man roster spot.
Because of the presence of both Segura and Kingery as well as the clear lack of depth in the starting rotation, the organization needs a pitching prospect to be MLB-ready sooner than it needs a third base prospect. Being able to address the number one concern with a player already in the system is huge. That makes Spencer Howard more necessary and therefore more valuable in the immediate future than Alec Bohm.
Allie hit the nail on the head here — the Phillies really are staring down a “1A, 1B” scenario at the top of their prospect food chain. Both of these young talents boast rich pedigrees, and are slated for BIG things upon their entry into the Majors.
For me, the deciding factor here simply boils down to which of these two is the more complete package.
Don’t get me wrong, Alec’s bat is beyond Major League ready, and everything else, apart from his defense — which he is working on, is top notch.
That said, Spencer’s only concerns coming into 2019 were his command, and his durability. He’s always had some nasty stuff, but many were worried about his ability to pitch further into games/stay healthy, as well as the eventuality that he would develop into a “pitcher” and not a “thrower.”
Howard was quick to silence his critics.
Across three levels last year, (AFL included) Spencer turned in 92 innings of work — and managed to stay relatively healthy, aside from the shoulder injury he suffered in early May, that is.
Howard also put up a 94:16 K:BB ratio in 2019. That’s nearly SIX strikeouts for every walk he allowed across High and Double-A ball. This stark improvement is likely why he rapidly shot up so many prospect lists, and has become an immediate favorite of scouts everywhere.
When I look at Alec Bohm, I see one big, jarring question mark where his defense should be.
When I look at Spencer Howard, I see that any question marks that may have previously popped up have all been quelled now — hence my ranking him over the aforementioned stud of a “third baseman.”
The Argument for Alec Bohm
Honestly, this is a little bit of a coin flip. In 2019 Kris Bryant was a roughly 5 WAR player and I think that is right about Bohm’s realistic ceiling. The same 5 WAR for a Pitcher puts you in borderline Ace category, roughly on par with Aaron Nola. I do think Spencer Howard has that type of ceiling. So, in terms of future performance I’m saying they’ll be potentially equal. They’re also almost exactly the same age (Howard is 5 days older), so it’s not like I can lean on one performing well at a younger age either.
So then I move onto flaws. Bohm can hit. Scouting reports say he can hit, his numbers across 3 levels last year say he can hit, just watching him and you can see he has a good feel for hitting. His power might be move Above Average to borderline Plus, but everyone also says power develops last, so I’m assuming he ends up settling in with plus power. That’s important because those 2 tools will play at either infield corner. Even if his 3rd base defense forces him to First (I’m optimistic about his defense, but that’s not the general consensus), his bat will play there. The drawback is that his WAR from defense will drop and he may end up more in the 4-ish WAR range.
Howard’s flaw is, well, track record for me. Howard has potential TOR stuff, he can rack up huge K totals, he’s solidly built and he’s been mostly healthy. He lost some time in 2020 to soreness, but it seems largely precautionary and he showed no ill effects pitching in the Fall, with all of his stuff still there and effective. Howard came to Starting a little later in his college career only really becoming a Starter during his Sophomore year (he was drafted as a Sophomore). For me though, that’s a minor nit-pick, probably about equal to the Bohm’s defensive questions. He’s about to be in his 4th year as a Starter and there’s noting really to suggest he won’t stay one.
For me, it came down to one thing: Position. TOR Starters are rare, but they’re also more volatile when it comes to injury risk (TINSTAPP and all that) and I have a very slight preference for everyday players in part because of that and in part because their value impacts the team every game.
My process for prospect ranking is a mix of impact, ceiling/floor and MLB-readiness. In my opinion, Bohm hits more of these check-marks than Howard. This is nothing against Howard and I even consider his ceiling to be higher than Bohm’s. As Cormican mentions above, the track record for Howard is still fairly short despite the numbers and “stuff”. Howard needs a full year in AA ball to build up arm strength and iron out some command issues. All the while I believe Bohm is just a couple months in AAA from being MLB-ready AND plays an everyday position, which is huge for my aforementioned criteria of impact. Even if Bohm’s power never evolves past the 20-25 home run tier, I believe his bat is enough to carry him to a high OPS and many All-Star appearances.