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Why Spencer Howard will not be on the Phillies’ Opening Day roster

Baseball’s service time rules will keep him off the roster, if only for a short time.

Glendale Desert Dogs v. Scottsdale Scorpions Photo by Buck Davidson/MLB Photos via Getty Images

When it appeared the 2020 season was going to be normal, before the world was besieged by the pandemic that has reshaped everyone’s lives, it was clear the Phillies’ top pitching prospect, Spencer Howard, would start the season playing for the Triple-A Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs.

There were two main reasons why this made sense. First, Howard pitched only 92 1⁄3 innings last year, including his stint in the Arizona Fall League. Giving him a few starts in the minors at 3-4 innings each would have allowed him to maintain a regular throwing schedule without piling up too many innings and given the Phils the option of calling him up mid-summer for a pennant push. The second and, at the time, less relevant reason was so that the Phillies could gain another year of service time for their young right-hander and delay his free agency by a year.

That second reason didn’t matter all that much because Howard certainly could have used some more time to polish his stuff and build up his innings slowly. But with the minor league season cancelled and the Phils dropped into a 60-game sprint to the finish line (provided the virus lets everyone finish), the first reason for keeping him off the roster is no longer relevant. Every game will carry the importance of an entire three-game series, and one win/loss could determine a postseason berth.

As manager Joe Girardi and general manager Matt Klentak consider who to place on the Opening Day 30-man roster, it would make sense to select the 30 best guys, based on positional need, of course. On pure talent and upside alone, Howard is one of the 30 best players on the 60-man roster and, in Thursday night’s intrasquad game, showed why expectations are so high for the 23-year-old.

Here he is painting a mid-90s fastball on the inside edge of the plate...

Here is a slider that Scott Kingery couldn’t have hit with a boat oar...

...and of course, some mid-to-upper 90s high cheese.

Yessir, Spencer Howard is by no means a finished product, but given his stuff and the urgency of the season, one would think his presence on the Opening Day roster is a must, right? Just ask Bryce Harper.

Fortunately, game No. 6 is a possibility, given that in order to gain another year of service time, the Phils only need to keep him off the roster for the first six games of the season, according to NBC Sports’ Jim Salisbury.

Because the season has been shortened so dramatically, the Phillies will gain an extra year of Howard’s services and delay his free agency by one year if they keep him off the roster for about a week. That’s a span in which he would likely pitch no more than 3-5 innings, in exchange for another whole year of service time. Given MLB’s rules (with will likely be among the first things changed as the new Collective Bargaining Agreement is negotiated), Klentak and Girardi can’t put Howard on the 30-man roster.

It stinks for Howard, but this is a little different than keeping him down for the first two months of the season and potentially giving up 5-7 starts from a pitcher who might be one of the three or four best starters in the rotation. In this case, it’s a handful of innings for one extra year.

Not only that, what if MLB can’t finish the season? What if the virus shuts everything down in August? The risk is too great to chance a season of Howard’s prime away. No matter how important each individual game is, Klentak isn’t going to take that chance.

No one likes this. Howard should be on the 30-man roster to start the season, but when what you have to gain is very little and what you have to lose is so great, it becomes clear that Spencer Howard will start the first few days with the rest of the minor leaguers until that Game No. 6 that Harper, and we, are targeting.

On Episode 399 of Hittin’ Season, I talked about Howard’s 2020 season and a number of other issues with Philadelphia Inquirer beat reporter Matt Breen. Check out the full interview right here!