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The Phillies (finally) do the right thing with Spencer Howard

Howard was demoted to AAA in a move everyone knows was right.

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Cincinnati Reds David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

The Phillies’ handling of the man who has been their top pitching prospect for the last three years, Spencer Howard, has been mystifying this season.

He was a starter who would only pitch three innings. He was a reliever used in the middle innings of a blowout loss. He started every fifth day for a couple weeks then he didn’t get used for eight days. His usage was mystifying, the type of yo-yoing you do with your No. 25 prospect, not your No. 1.

Now, it seems the Phillies have read the writing on the wall. In sending him down to AAA this week, team president Dave Dombrowski has admitted that the best thing for all parties is to stop relying on Howard to be a productive member of the ‘21 Phils, and instead focus on making him a regular member of the starting rotation in ‘22.

It is, finally, the correct thing to do.

Howard’s various arm/shoulder injuries and limited innings throughout his minor and brief Major League career threw a monkey wrench into this year’s plans from the start. In last year’s pandemic-shortened season, Howard threw a mere 21.2 innings and missed the end of the season with a shoulder strain. Certainly there was no way the team could rely on him to be a mainstay of this year’s rotation, where he would make 30 starts every fifth day and pile up 150-180 innings.

So they were left with two alternatives: make him a full-time bullpen arm this year or use him as a starter who only threw three innings every time out. There were serious drawbacks to both plans.

Had the Phillies made him a full-time, late inning relief pitcher, it would have stunted his growth as a starter, where he still possesses the potential to be a quality mid-rotation arm. He would have entered next season with the same problem with which he entered the 2021 season; a limited number of innings under his belt. You can’t develop a starting pitcher by having him be a relief pitcher, especially when that pitcher has only thrown more than 100 innings once in his minor league career.

However, pitching him every fifth day, three innings a start, wasn’t working either. Howard consistently lost velocity by the third inning of every start, and his numbers the second time through the order were atrocious.

Spencer Howard 1st and 2nd Time Through Order

1st Time Thru 45 0.103 0.222 0.128 0.35 13 5
2nd Time Thru 25 0.353 0.52 0.824 1.344 6 3

Those splits have led many to believe Howard’s future is as a closer, but it would be silly to close the door on him as a starter before he was given a real chance to get into a routine and spend an entire season in AAA working on developing his off-speed pitches and building stamina, outside the spotlight of Philadelphia and the pressures of having to win every time out. Howard needs to be in an environment where results in 2021 are not the priority, and now he’ll have a chance to do that in Lehigh Valley.

The Phillies are woefully short of high-end minor league talent, but Howard is the exception. He has the stuff to be a very good starting pitcher, and if he can make his start every fifth day and pile up some innings, the Phils will be in a better position this off-season to know whether they can count on him to be a member of the big league rotation next year.

It’s vital, above all things regarding Howard, they find that out, but the move to Lehigh Valley also benefits the big league club now. Howard performed poorly in his hybrid role, with an ERA of 5.82, a FIP of 4.35, and 6.6 walks per nine innings.

Whatever they were doing, it wasn’t working.

The Phils have to be encouraged by what they’ve seen from Vince Velasquez so far this season, Baily Falter has the makings of a solid No. 5 starter based on his minor league numbers and cup of coffee with the big league club thus far (2.77 ERA, 15/1 KK/BB ratio in 13 innings), and Matt Moore pitched well in his last start. All are better options for the big league club right now than their No. 1 pitching prospect.

Now comes the bigger question. Can the Phillies minor league pitching instructors actually develop Spencer Howard? It’s a huge question mark, but the only way it gets answered is to send Howard down to the minors and let him make a start every fifth day until he hits his innings limit this season, whenever and whatever that may be.

After three months of trying to jam a puzzle piece into a space that simply didn’t fit, the Phils finally did the right thing with Spencer Howard by sending him down. Only time will tell if any of this will work.