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The Phillies’ Spencer Howard dilemma is similar to what Archie Bradley faced four years ago

The Phillies might have to decide this month between placing Spencer Howard in the bullpen or stashing him in the minor leagues. Bradley faced a similar scenario in 2017 with Arizona.

Spencer Howard struck out two in a perfect inning Friday against the Pirates.
Spencer Howard struck out two in a perfect inning Friday against the Pirates.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

There was no room for Archie Bradley in Arizona’s starting rotation four years ago when spring training finished.

The Diamondbacks had five starting pitchers, leaving them two options for how to handle Bradley: Allow him to develop as a starter in triple A or utilize him in the majors as a reliever. Bradley was 24, a former first-round pick and top prospect, and a righthander who had made 99% of his professional appearances as a starting pitcher.

He did not have experience in the bullpen, but the Diamondbacks — entering a season with playoff aspirations — moved Bradley there anyway so they could keep him in the majors.

“Just stay down there until a spot opens up,” Bradley said he was told.

This month, a similar scenario is playing out in Phillies’ camp. They have four starters — Matt Moore, Chase Anderson, Vince Velasquez, and Spencer Howard — competing for the final two rotation roles behind Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler, and Zach Eflin.

It seems less than likely that Howard, the team’s 24-year-old pitching prospect, cracks the rotation when camp breaks. He threw just 24⅓ major-league innings last season after being slowed by a sore shoulder.

The Phillies have not said how many innings Howard will throw this season, but they will be cautious. He has reached 100 innings just once as a pro.

If Howard is in the rotation on April 1, there’s little chance he’d still have innings left come September.

They spent a combined $7 million this offseason on Anderson and Moore, veteran starters signed to stabilize the back of the rotation. That’s likely where they’ll begin the season. Velasquez, who is slated to earn $4 million, cannot be optioned to the minors and would likely move to the bullpen if Anderson and Moore fill out the rotation.

That leaves the Phillies with two options on how to use Howard: Allow him to work as a starting pitcher at the alternate site in Allentown before the triple-A season starts on May 4 or move him to the bullpen like Arizona did in 2017 with Bradley.

“I think you have to be open-minded to how you use Spence this year,” manager Joe Girardi said. “You have a good problem if everyone is throwing the ball really well. I think he has the ability to do both roles. If you take a starter and put him in the bullpen, you’re very careful with how you use them and they get their days off and they go multiple innings and you can build innings that way.”

“I’ve done it a few times in my career where starters have gone to the bullpen and been dominant and then went back to the starting rotation the next year. Sometimes, that’s how your team is the best.”

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Starting Howard in the bullpen would not disqualify him from entering the rotation later this season. But it would allow the Phillies to manage his innings while also benefiting from using him in major-league games instead of scrimmages in Allentown.

The Phillies, like Girardi said, would need to find a balance between using Howard as a reliever while monitoring his arm to ensure that he could slide if needed into the starting rotation.

Howard was electric Friday in his spring debut, needing just 14 pitches to retire the three batters he faced. He struck out two batters and averaged his fastball at 95.9 mph, closer to the velocity he flashed in the minors and nearly two ticks faster than last summer.

Bryce Harper faced Howard last week in batting practice and was taken aback — “Oh my gosh,” Harper said — when Howard fired a first-pitch fastball. The Phillies need that, Harper said.

“I’m not saying, ‘We need him right now,’ but if a guy goes down or something like that. I think he still needs to get a little bit better and figure out what he wants to do. It’s in there,” Harper said. “We want him here. We need him here. But also, these guys are on one-year deals as well. He could see himself, possibly later this year, get a start or a guy gets hurt and he slides right in. Or he pitches his way into the rotation right now. You never know. I never know what Girardi is thinking or anybody else. But we’re going to need him.

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“It doesn’t matter if we’re going to need him now, if we’re going to need him at the end, if we’re going to need him out of the bullpen in the playoffs. You’ve seen that in years past where you’ve had young starters come out of the pen and have done great things for their teams in the postseason because guys haven’t seen them or they come out throwing 98, 99 with a hammer and a change-up and you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, this guy’s nasty.’ Then that next year, they’re a starter. He could be that guy for us, and I think everybody knows that. I’m looking forward to what he does.”

The Phillies plan to enter the season with eight relievers, which could provide a challenge to find a place for Howard. Three of those spots — Bradley, Hector Neris, and Jose Alvarado — are secured. Brandon Kintzler and Tony Watson, veterans with established track records, appear to have inside tracks. Velasquez, if Anderson and Moore are starting, would take another.

That leaves two spots for JoJo Romero, Connor Brogdon, Sam Coonrod, David Hale, Hector Rondon, and Howard. Romero, Brogdon, and Coonrod can be optioned to the minors. Hale cannot be optioned but is already on the 40-man roster. Rondon is a minor-league free agent.

It may be difficult to find a place for Howard, but that decision becomes less challenging if he continues to pitch this spring the way he did Friday. One solution would be to carry nine relievers instead of eight.

“From Spence to Vinny, these guys who are in those swing roles, I’m really big on getting them to understand, ‘Just pitch well,’” Bradley said. “Who cares if you’re the fifth starter? Who cares if you’re the long guy? If you just pitch well, one, you’re going to help us win. And two, there’s going to be a chance that you earn yourself a start again if you aren’t a starter to start the season.”

Bradley was asked in 2017 to pitch more than one inning in each of his first six appearances, most of which came in lopsided games. He was a long reliever waiting for a spot in the starting rotation. But then the Diamondbacks started trusting him in high-leverage spots.

He was thrown into the fire in late April, protected an eighth-inning lead, and never looked back.

“For me, it was just about learning how to pitch in the big leagues,” Bradley said. “And those couple outings as a long guy helped me learn how to pitch in the big leagues to where had I transitioned back to a starter or I did transition to the later innings, I now knew what I needed to do to get guys out the right way.”

Bradley posted a 1.73 ERA that season in 63 relief appearances, struck out 9.7 batters per nine innings, helped lock down a playoff win, and received an MVP vote. He became one of the game’s elite relievers and is now the key piece of the Phillies’ rebuilt bullpen. And there’s a chance he could be joined in that bullpen by a 24-year-old pitcher who is facing a similar scenario this month to the one Bradley faced four years ago.

“The bullpen taught me so much on just day-to-day preparedness, how to work, how to get ready quick and how a lot of those long routines you have as a starter can get in your way sometimes,” Bradley said. “At the end of the day, you pick up the ball and you throw it. It really got me down to the basics of what being a big-league pitcher was. It taught me how to get guys out. How to work in big situations. And, ultimately, it made me the pitcher I am today.”

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