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Phillies saving top pitching prospect Spencer Howard for when it counts

After the prized 23-year-old right-hander pitched only 99 1/3 innings last year, the Phillies want to be sure he's able to contribute big innings for them later in the season.

Phillies top prospect Spencer Howard is expected to be ready for the big leagues at some point in 2020.
Phillies top prospect Spencer Howard is expected to be ready for the big leagues at some point in 2020.Read moreGeorge Youngs Jr. / Reading Phillies (custom credit)

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Spencer Howard was closing in on the end of a five-week stint in the Arizona Fall League in October, when he got word of the Phillies’ plan for him in spring training.

“They just told me, ‘Don’t panic when you’re not throwing as much as everyone else, because we’re going to limit your innings early,’” the prized pitching prospect said the other day. “I guess I’m just trying to take it with a grain of salt.”

So, while other pitchers long-tossed on a back field at the Carpenter Complex on Saturday, Howard played catch from a distance of about 100 feet with reliever Victor Arano, who is returning from elbow surgery.

Howard hasn’t thrown off a mound since camp began Wednesday, partially because he tweaked his right knee while doing a broad-jump exercise in the weight room last weekend, a fact that wasn’t revealed by manager Joe Girardi until Saturday. Odds are, though, that he might not have had more than one bullpen session yet anyway.

It's all part of the Phillies' attempt to maximize Howard's impact this season.

“Really not a big deal,” Howard said of the knee, which checked out well in an MRI. “Nothing is like actually injured. Just pretty much gives me an excuse to do nothing early.”

Confused? OK, some clarity:

Howard has pitched a grand total of 232 1/3 innings over three seasons in the minors, topping out at double-A Reading last season. Most touted prospects with such little tread on their arm require more reps, not fewer, before they are ready to graduate to the big leagues.

But the Phillies expect to call up Howard to pitch important innings this season. And considering the 23-year-old right-hander missed seven weeks with shoulder tendinitis last year and worked only 99 1/3 innings, including a half-dozen fall-league starts, they want to be judicious about his early usage to make certain that he’s available later.

“Every pitch he throws in March is a pitch he’s not going to be able to throw in September,” general manager Matt Klentak said when camp opened. “We are going to be very slow with Spencer on purpose. It’s not because something is wrong, and it’s not because we don’t like him. It’s because we like him a lot, and we need to set him up for success to pitch deep into the season this year.”

There are several possibilities of where and when Howard will open the season. Maybe he will go to triple-A Lehigh Valley and be constrained by a strict pitch count. Or maybe he will stay behind in extended spring training until the weather warms and continue to build arm strength.

This isn’t the first time that Howard’s ETA in the big leagues has been a hot topic. With each start he made in August, speculation grew that he would be promoted from double-A. But by Sept. 4, when he took a no-hitter into the sixth inning of an Eastern League playoff game against Trenton, it became clear that the Phillies wouldn’t push him as they faded in the wild-card race.

“I knew there was talk about it, but the only time that I would really talk about it was during interviews,” Howard said. “I’m not super-big on social media and stuff, so I didn’t really see any of it there. It wasn’t on my mind as much as everyone else.”

Howard ascended to the top of the Phillies’ pitching-prospect ranks last February, after they dealt Sixto Sanchez to Miami for J.T. Realmuto. They drafted Howard in the second round in 2017 out of Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, where he walked on in his freshman year and didn’t start until he was a junior.

He's always had good stuff, especially a bat-slowing change-up. But the refinement of his curveball and slider and his overall ability to use four pitches in concert have taken him to the brink of the majors.

In 2018, "every game he would have a couple of those pitches, and the other two maybe weren’t working that day,” said Brad Bergesen, Howard’s pitching coach for much of the last two seasons. “But [last year], I saw him where every outing he’s able to throw all four pitches. Those times when a curveball might pop out the first couple times, he’s not just getting away from it.”

Howard posted a 2.03 ERA and averaged 11.9 strikeouts per nine innings in 15 starts last year, including a 2.64 mark in six double-A starts.

“He’s really close [to being ready for the big leagues] and has a chance to be impactful,” a National League evaluator said. “He’s one of the top three or four pitching prospects I’ve seen.”

Neither Girardi nor Klentak see the sense in drawing up a specific innings limit. It’s doubtful, though, that the Phillies would push Howard much beyond about 130 innings, especially because they have visions of slotting him into the rotation behind Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler for years to come.

“This is not just about 2020," Girardi said. “This is about the next 10, 15 years."

So, Howard will take it slow, nursing a knee injury Girardi said is notable only because it "gives us the luxury of making sure that we don't rush him."

“Mentally, I think, more than anything else, it’s going to be a little bit different,” Howard said. “I guess everybody [else] is competing here. But I know they’re just looking out for me. And if I do what I’m supposed to do, then everything will take care of itself.”