Sometime before the Phillies begin their 60-game season later this month, they will have to trim their roster in half.
They’ll keep 30 players in Philadelphia — likely 16 pitchers and 14 position players — while the rest head to to train by themselves in Allentown. The Phillies will narrow down their bullpen, sharpen their bench, and finalize the starting rotation before opening the season on July 24.
But one of the more pressing decisions will be what the team decides to do with Spencer Howard, their highest-ranked pitching prospect in a decade.
It would be hard to argue against Howard, who turns 24 later this month, not being one of the team’s top 16 pitchers. He’s been excellent in the minor leagues when healthy, his arsenal looks major-league ready, and the Phillies are not exactly set in their rotation and bullpen.
But it’s also hard to fault the Phillies if they send Howard up the Northeast Extension and keep him in Allentown for the start of the season in order to delay his eventual free agency by one year. For the Phillies, it’s a layered decision.
“If this kid is the guy we think he is — and we do — then he’s going to have a really nice future in Philadelphia,” pitching coach Bryan Price said. “But at some point in time, he’s going to have to develop a workload. Last year was shortened by injury on the front end. Workload is important.
“If he doesn’t make the team out of summer camp, then he’ll be getting workload in Lehigh Valley. I would really hope and expect to see him pitching here, if not on opening day, then in some point in time because he really needs the work and I think he’s ready to compete at this level.”
Howard logged just shy of 100 innings in 2019 between the minor-league regular season, postseason, and Arizona Fall League. The Phillies were cautious with Howard during spring training in Clearwater as they tried to derive a plan to monitor his workload this season while also making sure he was available to the major-league team in August and September.
But those concerns, after the pandemic delayed the season by three months, now seem null. The Phillies could open the season on July 24 with Howard in the rotation, remove the reins, and keep him in the majors for the full 60-game season.
And that’s where the team’s decision this month comes into play. If they keep Howard in Allentown for the start of the season — perhaps for as little as just one week — he will be eligible for free agency after 2026 instead of 2025. If Howard proves to be an elite starter, an additional year of team control would be more beneficial to the team than one extra week in 2020.
Also, it cannot be ignored that there is already concern that baseball may not be able to finish a 60-game season during the pandemic. The Phillies starting Howard in the majors for the open of the season, burning his year of free agency, and then watching the 2020 season get canceled in August would be the equivalent of trading your best pitching prospect for the game’s best catcher and then watching that catcher walk away in free agency.
“Howard is an interesting one, specifically, because as you guys recall back in Clearwater in February and March, we talked a lot about the need to manage his workload just given the limited workload he had a year ago and not wanting to push him too much, too soon this year,” Phillies general manager Matt Klentak said at the start of summer camp. “With COVID being what it’s been the last few months, he’s obviously had a chance to rest. I think the fact that he is part of this 53 player group should reflect that we view him as a candidate to compete for us in our 60-game season.”
The Phillies may start the season with 16 pitchers, but they could need nearly double that many to finish the season. It is safe to expect them to lose pitchers to the virus or virus-related issues, lose pitchers to injury, and lose pitchers to poor performance.
Howard, even if he starts the season training in Allentown, will pitch for the Phillies this season. Now it’s just a matter of determining when that will be.