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Grading the Phillies move for Kyle Gibson and Ian Kennedy

The reason for the anger at this move does have merit, but the reasoning behind the deal is sound

Philadelphia Phillies v New York Mets Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

The Phillies made a deal yesterday for Kyle Gibson and Ian Kennedy. All they had to give up was Spencer Howard and some other prospects. After the news of the deal was first broken, the reaction was swift and brother, let me tell you: it wasn’t positive.

Once the full trade came into focus, people started calming down a little bit more, but the consensus is that the team did not do very well with this deal. If we’re reading the room correctly, the Phillies got a pitcher whose surface level numbers of ERA and wins are way out of whack compared to the peripherals to fester beneath the surface. Couple in the fact that Gibson has been pretty bad since the All-Star break and the recipe is there for a regression that could get ugly. With Ian Kennedy, the deal looks a bit better since he has been a pretty good two out of the last three years, 2020 being what looks like an anomaly. His contributions to the bullpen will help set players into different roles, roles that will let them be deployed according to the situation.

So why is everyone so angry about it?

Sure, regression is probably in the cards for Gibson. It’s rare that a pitcher can outpitch his surface level numbers for an entire season. He relies on the groundball a lot and as much as he may not want to, he’ll have to pitch in front of the Phillies’ defense. Hitting a ball to Jean Segura this season at second base has been pretty close to an automatic out, but if the ball is hit to the left side of the infield, hopes and prayers are usually required before an out can be written in the scorebook. Is Gibson going to be much more than a fourth starter for this team? No, but that’s not the point. The point is that he will be a fourth starter whose last name isn’t Moore, Anderson or Velasquez. The Phillies have received such poor performances from that triumvirate of bad, the cries for anything better have been loud and clear for some time now. It was so loud, when the fans thought Tyler Anderson was coming to Philadelphia, people were rejoicing at the fact he would be kicking someone out of the rotation. Is Gibson better than Anderson? Yes, so an upgrade has been made to the rotation. Mission accomplished.

But we’re dancing around the main reason why people were so mad. It’s because the team has seemingly failed yet again at drafting, developing, helping and deploying a pitching prospect that prospect mavens around the country routinely saw as a top 100 talent. Watching the team give up on Spencer Howard is an admittance that they do not believe he will amount to much in the major leagues, so dealing him to help the big league club right now was more preferable to fighting to keep him in the organization and sending someone else back to Texas. It’s not only disappointing that they gave up on Howard, it’s that they gave him up for a non-impact talent. As much as Gibson helps the rotation going forward, calling him an impact talent isn’t correct. So, Howard has been given up for peanuts, or so people would have you think.

But let’s also consider what Howard has done in the Phillies organization. His 2019 season was excellent and the one that really put him on the prospect map. Across four levels, he amassed 71 innings over 15 starts, putting up a 2.03 combined ERA, striking out 94 over those innings and only giving up 16 walks. It’s when the hype train really started, with Eric Longenhagen writing this prior to 2020:

In 2018, his first full season as a member of the rotation, Howard thrived and late in the year his stuff took off. He was sitting 94-98 and working with three nasty secondary pitches. That carried over to his first four starts of 2019 but was interrupted by shoulder soreness that benched him for two months. After he returned, the Phillies moved him pretty quickly to Double-A for six starts, then had him finish in the Fall League. His stuff was great in Arizona.

But that little part in the middle of that report is where some of the doubt began. The shoulder issues he had in 2019 is what limited him in that season, the main reason why the team didn’t really let him go full bore at the end. No problem with that philosophy, especially as it pertains to pitchers. In the shortened 2020 season, a new issue arose. He only had a struggle in the few starts he had, unable to somehow get past the first few go ‘rounds of the batting order. Longenhagen continued to hold him in high regard, though some red flags were starting to be put in hand.

Howard’s stuff was just not as crisp in 2020 as it was at the end of 2019 as he dealt with rotator cuff inflammation. He and Casey Mize are back to back on the Top 100: guys with front end stuff, but recent injuries. Howard’s fastball was sitting 93-97 deep into his best 2019 Fall League outings but only averaged 94 in 2020, and his command backed up, too. I’m taking a longview here. Remember that we’re talking about a small school pop-up reliever who, due to a past shoulder injury and the pandemic, has just one full pro season as a starter. Howard has impact stuff...His breaking ball lacked backfoot angle in 2020 but, based on how Howard has described his shoulder issues impacting how he pitched, that may come if he and the Phillies staff can find a way to put the shoulder problems in the rearview.

This season has been more of the same, seeing Howard unable to harness his stuff and give the team quality pitching past the third or fourth innings in the starts he was in, seeing his velocity drop off markedly and teams begin to tee off on him once they had their initial look. That’s not a development issue, that’s a Spencer Howard issue. It wasn’t something that just suddenly creeped up. It happened in 2020 as well.

At the same time, much of Howard’s issues can probably be laid at the feet of the organization. With such a need for rotation help, they put Howard in the rotation before he was ready. Remember, this was a team that was looking to leave him in the minors for the majority of the season, getting him enough innings to develop without breaking in half.

Then they called him up, only to see him struggle as a starter.

Then they tried him in the bullpen, to see if he could be a better weapon there.

Then they sent him to the minors, where he was successful.

Then they called him back up to the majors, where he struggled again.

And this is all in one season! The one season where they were committed before it all started to leaving him in the rotation and accumulating innings, they deviated from that plan and tried to throw something against the wall to see if it could stick. It was frustrating for the fans, but also for the player. The shortsightedness of the front office and dugout could have potentially cost them something special in Howard. Even if Howard was not put in the deal and remained in the organization, what about this pitching development program that has been put in place would lead you to believe they would be able to maximize Howard’s potential?

But what has Howard shown in his actual performance that would lead one to believe he would actually attain that lofty expectation? He’s been given thirteen starts in the big leagues and while it is a small sample size, it’s not nothing. In those thirteen starts, he has shown flashes of being a top of the rotation arm, but those flashes haven’t been happening very often. When they do happen, it’s only for two or three innings at a time. He’s still young enough that perhaps he gets close to the ceiling that was predicted of him, but based on what he has shown in the big leagues, it’s hard to think he’s going to be anywhere near that projection. The team clearly felt that he wasn’t going to get there anytime soon. They are trying to get to the playoffs this year and if trading Howard was the key to getting players they thought would help, they felt comfortable enough to do so.

The anger that the fanbase is feeling shouldn’t be aimed at the fact that Howard was traded. The initial vitriol that was spewing forth was based on the fact that Howard was once a top 100 prospect and he is no longer in the organization. Usually, when players of his potential are traded, it’s for players like Max Scherzer or Yu Darvish. All the Phillies got was Kyle Gibson. But your anger shouldn’t be aimed there.

The anger should be aimed at another example of a development shortcoming that is becoming all too familiar with the team, where a prospect has shown a lot of promise, a lot of potential to be something special only to see him fail at the big league level over and over while in Philadelphia. Looking at this deal in a purely baseball sense, it’s hard to think the Phillies didn’t make out well. They upgraded the rotation, got another high quality arm to add to the bullpen and even drew a solid pitching prospect from Texas as well. Taking all other factors into account, a grade of a B-/C+ feels appropriate.

That won’t be enough. From now on, no matter what happens this year with Gibson or Kennedy, the deal will be focused squarely on how Spencer Howard’s career shakes out. Should he become the top of the rotation monster people were predicting, yes, this is a bust. But if he continues to struggle in games, if he continues to be unable to give more than four or five innings per start, it’s hard to see how this trade doesn’t tip the scales in the Phillies’ favor. Unfortunately for us, we’ll just have to wait and see.