It would have been easy if the coronavirus never interrupted the world for the Phillies to begin the 2020 season with their two top prospects at triple A.
They could have used Alec Bohm’s bat in the lineup, but they would have argued that his defense at third base needed work. Spencer Howard could have slotted into the back of the starting rotation, but the Phillies would have said his right arm needed to log innings in Lehigh Valley for him to be on track to reach the majors in time for a late-summer playoff race.
The Phillies, by stashing Bohm and Howard at triple A for the start of the season, would have benefited by gaining an extra year of control on their contracts. That manipulation of service time, which almost every team seems to take part in, would have been defensible.
But not anymore.
If baseball begins a truncated season next month, the Phillies will be hard-pressed to find reasons for keeping Bohm and Howard off the major-league roster. It’ll be a 60-game sprint to a finish line that could have the Phillies reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2011. They’ll need all the help they can get.
Worried about Bohm’s defense? The National League is expected to have a designated hitter for the 60-game season. Watching Howard’s usage? A 60-game season will limit his innings naturally. Plus, a triple-A season seems unlikely.
The Phillies, especially against right-handed starters, will use Jay Bruce as their primary designated hitter but there will still be at-bats for Bohm. He posted a .896 OPS last season between three minor-league levels, leaving little question about his offensive abilities. Bohm, who turns 24 in August, was impressive in spring training and had the look of a hitter ready for the majors.
In a normal season, he would have arrived in Philadelphia by the middle of the summer. Now the middle of the summer happens to be opening day.
Bohm’s playing time this season will not be strictly limited to being a DH as he’ll be able to be in the lineup almost any time manager Joe Girardi grants a day off to a regular. If Scott Kingery sits, then Jean Segura can slide to second while Bohm plays third. If Adam Haseley’s not playing center field, Kingery can move to the outfield and Segura can cover second with Bohm playing third. The Phillies have a versatile infield and Bohm will benefit from it.
The Phillies limited Howard in spring training, keeping him out of a Grapefruit League game until three days before spring training was canceled. A shoulder injury last season limited him to fewer than 100 innings, giving the Phillies reason to tread carefully with their top pitching prospect.
After slowing him in Clearwater, the Phillies planned to monitor his innings at triple A in order to preserve his arm for the late stages of the major-league season. They hoped to infuse their rotation by adding Howard come July or August. That late stage is scheduled to begin next month and the Phillies will have the luxury of having Howard without worrying much about his workload. If Howard is in the five-man rotation, he would stand to make roughly 12 starts. If he’s in the bullpen, his usage would likely be even less. A shortened season should not be a burden.
Howard, who turns 24 next week, posted a 2.15 ERA last season with 12.1 strikeouts per nine innings in seven double-A starts, including one playoff game. Like Bohm, perhaps Howard could have benefited from tasting triple A this season. But like Bohm, there is enough evidence to believe that Howard is already ready for the majors.
He pitched just one Grapefruit League inning this year, but it was enough to imagine what he could provide in 2020. His fastball -- which can touch 99 mph -- sat that day in the mid-90s and his curveball, slider, and changeup were sharp. “You really get excited about that arm,” Girardi said afterward.
But two days later, spring training was canceled as the coronavirus interrupted the world. The team’s plans were spoiled to begin the season with their two top prospects at triple A. But three months later, they have the chance to bring them to the major leagues, the level they would have already reached or be inching toward by now if the coronavirus didn’t delay the season.