The struggles at the back of the Phillies rotation motivated them Monday to drop Spencer Howard to the minor leagues and prepare the prospect as a starting pitcher after using him this season in a relief role.
Howard was optioned to the alternate site in Allentown, where he will work as a starter for the Phillies’ taxi squad. Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said before the season that Howard would be a reliever this year while monitoring his workload after throwing roughly 125 innings over the last two seasons.
But the Phillies’ fourth and fifth starters have a combined 7.39 ERA this season in eight starts and none of those three pitchers – Matt Moore, Chase Anderson, and Vince Velasquez – were able to pitch past the fifth inning.
The Phillies were forced to shift their approach with Howard.
“I think our biggest concern has been the amount of innings he has that we can use,” manager Joe Girardi said. “But we will start to build him up more now.”
The 24-year-old Howard will still be on an innings limit when he returns to the majors, which could force the Phillies to use him as an “opener.” They could schedule Howard every fifth day to pitch the first four or five innings as a way to structure his usage.
Howard pitched this season in three games as a reliever, averaging less than two innings and 32.3 pitches per appearance. He was limited in spring training by back spasms, injured his shoulder last season, and was slowed in 2019 by a sore shoulder.
The Phillies are being cautious with Howard, which is why they sent the pitcher to Allentown to prepare him before dropping him into the rotation.
“We’re going to build him up more, so if we want to do things like that, he’s capable of doing that,” Girardi said of using Howard as an opener. “The tricky thing is using a young man like that out of the bullpen, in a non traditional sense in his mind. For a guy like Connor Brogdon, who’s been a reliever, the way he gets ready is traditional. But for Spencer, it isn’t. So that would definitely be a possibility if we thought it was a good idea. So he will start games in a sense down there. But that doesn’t mean that he couldn’t be an opener too because an opener in the sense starts a game.”
A left-field platoon?
Andrew McCutchen was replaced Monday in left-field by Brad Miller, but is it too early for the Phillies to think about platooning the struggling right-handed McCutchen with the left-handed Miller?
“I think it’s probably a little bit too early to talk about that,” Girardi said. “But we’re always evaluating everything that goes on, and you try not to make too much of a short period of time. You have to give guys a chance to get going. But we’re always looking at ways to make our team better.”
McCutchen entered Monday hitting .154 with a .531 OPS. Among leadoff hitters, McCutchen’s average is the lowest in baseball and his OPS is the fourth worst. Miller batted first on Monday night.
“I figured it’s a way to get him at-bats off a right-hander, to give Cutch a day off,” Girardi said. “And that way, I didn’t have to change the whole lineup in a sense. I was able to keep it pretty consistent throughout.”
Velasquez will likely start Wednesday against the Cardinals as the Phillies don’t expect Moore to be ready to pitch after returning to the team Monday after clearing COVID-19 protocols. Velasquez started for Moore Friday against the Rockies and allowed two runs in four innings on a pair of solo homers.
The Phillies also added reliever Jose Alvarado from the injured list along with Moore. He was out for a week after coming into contact with someone who had COVID-19. ... Zach Eflin will face right-hander Carlos Martinez on Tuesday night. Eflin allowed two runs in seven innings against the Cardinals on April 16. Martinez started that night for the Cards and allowed six runs in five innings.