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Inside the Phillies’ ever-evolving plan for top pitching prospect Spencer Howard | Scott Lauber

Reliever? Starter? Or opener? The Phillies want to maximize Howard's impact while building a workload and continuing his development. "That’s a lot of things to do at one time," Dave Dombrowski said.

The Phillies are still considering how best to deploy top pitching prospect Spencer Howard this year.
The Phillies are still considering how best to deploy top pitching prospect Spencer Howard this year.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

It happened a week and a half ago, at the tail end of a six-game homestand, in the late innings of a rain-interrupted Wednesday matinee, before a walkoff hit and the customary on-field revelry.

But it remains seared in the minds of Phillies officials.

Spencer Howard, the team’s top pitching prospect, entered with two on, two out, and the game tied. He got the Giants’ Buster Posey to foul out to end the seventh inning, then came back to strike out the side in the eighth. In all, he threw 21 pitches. Eighteen were fastballs, all but two topping 96 mph.

Manager Joe Girardi called Howard’s performance “spectacular.” Howard said it was “refreshing.” Catcher Andrew Knapp noted that the ball had “a little more zip.”

Everyone agreed they wanted to see more.

But when? And how? In what role? And to what end?

There’s no denying Howard can help the Phillies, especially given the struggles of back-end starters Chase Anderson, Matt Moore, and Vince Velasquez. But there isn’t a player in the organization who has been more affected by injuries and the pandemic than Howard. The 24-year-old right-hander has taken on sphinxian status, with questions about the durability of his shoulder and the capacity of his workload this season and beyond.

And based on their words and actions, it’s evident the Phillies are still searching for answers.

“What we would love,” president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said this week, “is for him to help us however he possibly can and continue to develop and pitch enough innings to get to that point where you can comfortably say, ‘OK, he’s pitched enough that we can count on him being part of our starting rotation next year.’ That would be our goal with him. And that’s a lot of things to do at one time.”

Indeed, it’s complicated. This week, in fact, after Howard was sent back to the Lehigh Valley training site, Girardi said the Phillies would begin to “build him up more” as a starter. Dombrowski described the plan differently. Rather than having Howard throw more than two or three innings per appearance, he said the Phillies will simply slide those innings to the beginning of a game instead of using him in relief.

“When we say ‘lengthen him out,’ we’re not talking about five-or-six-innings type of lengthening out. I don’t think Joe meant that at all,” Dombrowski said. “We’re talking about giving him two-, three-, maybe even a four-inning type of thing. But we’re not talking about stretching him out to those number of innings where you consider him as a starting-starting pitcher, per se.”

Confused? OK, let’s step back.

» READ MORE: Phillies should start opening games with Spencer Howard | Bob Brookover

This wouldn’t be such a riddle if Howard hadn’t come down with shoulder soreness in each of the last two seasons. In 2019, he barely threw 100 innings, including the Arizona Fall League. He made his major-league debut last August and underwhelmed with a 5.92 ERA in six starts. Even worse, because of the abbreviated schedule and late-season shoulder stiffness, he worked only 24 1/3 innings, in addition to a modest accumulation at the alternate site.

The Phillies’ top priority, then, with Howard is to build a workload that will set him up for more normalized usage next year. They set an innings target for him, but Girardi and Dombrowski would sooner give their credit-card numbers to an online scammer than reveal it. Whether it’s 75 innings, 150, or more likely something in between, it’s imperative that Howard meets the bar.

“I kind of want innings, wherever they are, just to kind of feel more stuff in the game,” Howard said after the outing against the Giants. “Be it starting or relief, I’m just looking for innings.”

The Phillies may be content to let Howard make up for lost time in triple-A if their pitching depth wasn’t razor-thin. Even after throwing a total of $7 million at Anderson and Moore in free agency and not trading Velasquez in the offseason, Howard is one of the best 13 pitchers in the organization.

On the eve of opening day, Dombrowski said the Phillies planned to use Howard mostly out of the bullpen. But because it’s an unfamiliar role, Girardi said they were developing a set of rules for deploying him, including allowing extra recovery time.

The result: Howard got three days off between facing the Giants and an April 25 outing in Colorado in which he threw 44 pitches in mop-up duty in a lopsided loss, hardly the optimal use of his precious innings.

“He’s reached the point where he’s got value for us at the major-league level, but we also want to make sure to continue to develop him,” Dombrowski said. “I don’t think he fits in, per se, at the back end of the bullpen. There’s other guys that are ahead of him there. A guy like him, right now, we want him to get guaranteed work.

“One way you can do that is let him go out there on a regular basis at the start of the games and pitch two, three, four innings, whatever it may be at that particular time.”

» READ MORE: Spencer Howard, starting rotation depth, and the organizational shortcoming that could derail the Phillies

But the Phillies have another reason for no longer treating Howard as a handle-with-care reliever. They need more from the final two spots in the rotation. In a total of 10 starts, Anderson, Moore, and Velasquez have combined for a 6.59 ERA and an average of only 4.1 innings per start.

Girardi said he won’t rule out using Howard as an “opener,” although it figures to be more of a “piggyback” scenario. Whereas the classic opener usually pitches one inning, the Phillies would likely have Howard go the first three or four innings before bringing in another multiple-inning pitcher behind him.

If Howard entered the rotation now and pitched four innings per start for the rest of the season, he would come in at roughly 112 innings. It’s unclear how that aligns with the Phillies’ goal for him.

“I don’t want to draw anything concrete at this point,” Dombrowski said. “We’re just keeping all alternatives open.”

Regardless, Dombrowski doesn’t view partial starts for Howard as a solution to the back-of-the-rotation needs.

“Because I don’t think [Howard] is going to go out there and pitch six, seven innings for us on a regular basis because his innings would end so quickly,” Dombrowski said. “The tricky part is that he’s a very talented individual that we like a great deal. He’s so close. He’s got above-average stuff. You can really see it.”

After the game against the Giants, the Phillies can’t unsee it.

If only they could figure out how to use it to their advantage.

» READ MORE: Phillies prospect Logan O’Hoppe grew up a fan of Joe Girardi. Now Girardi is a fan of his.