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What is Spencer Howard’s role when he comes back?

The Phillies are gaming the system, but when that’s done, where does he fit in?

Surprise Saguaros v. Scottsdale Scorpions Photo by Buck Davidson/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Earlier this week, the Phillies sent Spencer Howard down to “Triple-A,” which is what everyone is calling the 30 players on the 60-man 2020 roster that are not part of the 30-man Opening Day squad even though it isn’t really Triple-A. They’ll play a bunch of intrasquad games in order to stay fresh, but with the minor league season cancelled, there’s not much a pitcher like Howard is going to get out of it.

In order to delay Howard’s free agency by a year and gain another season of team control, the Phillies need only wait five days before calling him back up to the big leagues, which would put him on a path to returning to the big league club for Game No. 6 against the Yankees in New York.

The assumption is that, when Howard is eligible to return, he will be back with the big league club. At least, that’s Bryce Harper’s expectation, as he said last week.

“If Spencer Howard isn’t in our starting rotation by Game 6 in New York against the Yankees, there’s a problem,” Harper said. “That’s all I’m saying.”

Here’s the thing. Aaron Nola would be scheduled to pitch Game No. 6 against the Yankees. Zack Wheeler would be in line for his second start of the season in Game No. 7, Vince Velasquez for Game No. 8, Jake Arrieta for Game No. 9... you get the idea. The 5th starter’s job is up in the air due to Zach Eflin’s back spasms that may or may not prevent him from starting the second game of the Yankees series in New York.

Where does Howard fit into this starting rotation? Manager Joe Girardi clearly likes what he’s seen from Velasquez since the team returned from its pandemic recess. Jake Arrieta will earn a prorated amount of his $20 million salary so he’s unlikely to be booted out unless he struggles. Howard could certainly take the No. 5 spot if Eflin can’t get past his back spasms, but what if Eflin is healthy? And is Girardi ready to start Howard over Nick Pivetta?

Howard could also be shuttled to the bullpen, much like the Tampa Bay Rays did with David Price during his rookie 2008 season. But Howard has never pitched in relief and the team clearly loves his upside as a starter. Would they be willing to change gears? Is that a risk worth taking?

In terms of pure stuff, Spencer Howard is unquestionably right there with Nola and Wheeler. We’ve seen him make right-handed hitters like Scott Kingery look ridiculous with a slider that tails down and away, we’ve seen him bend Rhys Hoskins’ knees with a killer curve, and we’ve seen him throw high gas past a number of Phils hitters this summer. You already know what the best player on the team thinks about him. He’s clearly legit.

But it’s unclear whether that’s enough to hand him the No. 5 spot and send Eflin and Pivetta to the bullpen. And if Howard isn’t guaranteed a spot in the rotation, it’s possible he isn’t called up when he’s clear of those first five games in order to give Girardi as many options out of the bullpen as possible.

No one doubts Howard should be on the team in time for Game No. 6 at the latest, but what he’s going to do if and when he gets here is still a big mystery.

On Episode 401 of Hittin’ Season, I talked about that, how the Mookie Betts contract affects the Phillies’ negotiations with J.T. Realmuto, and answered your mailbag questions ahead of Phillies’ Opening Day this weekend!