In 355 days between getting called up for the first time and getting traded, Spencer Howard started 13 games and never recorded an out after the fifth inning. He had blisters and calluses, a sore right shoulder, and back spasms. He dominated hitters one time through the lineup and experienced mystifying dips in velocity the next. He once blamed a lapse in control on being winded from running to first base the previous inning.
It was an unusual amount of adversity for a prospect so highly touted that Bryce Harper advocated last summer for him to be in the Phillies’ starting rotation.
Through it all, though, Howard figured he could lean on his routine. Most starters are slaves to it. They play only every fourth or fifth day, and it’s what they do on the days in between that can determine if they will be successful.
“If your routine is steady,” Howard told reporters Friday in Pittsburgh, “then performance will take care of itself.”
For two years, the Phillies never came up with a routine for Howard. In trying to manage his workload while also maximizing his impact — goals that proved to be mutually exclusive — they used him as a starter last year, moved him to the bullpen at the beginning of this season, and put him back on a starter’s schedule. They shuttled him back and forth to triple A. They let him throw more than 70 pitches in a start twice, and not since last Aug. 31.
Maybe that’s how this all happened. Maybe that’s how a sub-.500 team with a chance to win a crummy division and make the playoffs for the first time in nine years decided Friday that a 25-year-old right-hander with quality stuff couldn’t be part of the short-term solution and was no longer worth taking the long view.
Less than a year after Howard’s ballyhooed debut, the Phillies used him as the primary piece in a six-player trade-deadline deal with the Texas Rangers that netted a veteran starter who is under control through next season (Kyle Gibson), a late-inning reliever (Ian Kennedy), and even a new hot-shot pitching prospect (Hans Crouse).
It was almost impossible to remember that Howard was once untouchable.
“Very difficult decision,” said president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski, who neither drafted nor developed Howard but inherited him from former general manager Matt Klentak’s regime. “We like Spencer, and I think he has a chance to have a real nice big-league career. We just think, with what we’re trying to do, we’re willing to give up the potential there, replace it with Crouse. We thought, if we’re going to try to win this year, we needed to have a more established guy go out there with consistent innings.”
The trade comes at a time when, if you squinted, you could have seen Howard actually helping the Phillies.
He got called up July 21 to step in for injured Zach Eflin and delivered three sparkling innings on short rest at Yankee Stadium. He had better command of his fastball and threw a harder slider that he had been perfecting in triple A. Five days later, he breezed through three innings at home against the Washington Nationals before giving up hits to five of the first six batters in the fourth inning and leaving with a callus.
The latest annoying interruption wouldn’t have caused Howard to miss a start. He threw a bullpen session Wednesday and was scheduled to face the the Pirates on Sunday. But the Phillies didn’t think they could trust him in the rotation. Not now and possibly not ever.
“It seems like something happened whenever we would give him that opportunity through really no fault of his own,” Dombrowski said. “If it’s a blister or something else, he runs out of gas.”
True. But Dombrowski also conceded the Phillies didn’t do Howard any favors. They wanted him to continue his development but also pitch meaningful innings in the majors. They hoped he could build a workload in preparation for 2022 but refused to turn him loose.
In the absence of a routine on the mound, Howard tried to find one in the gym and the trainers’ room. If he focused on weight lifting and arm care, he thought it would eventually translate to the field.
It never did. At least not with the Phillies. Maybe the Rangers will provide him with a fresh start.
Howard will never know how it could’ve been different. What if the Phillies weren’t within sight of the playoff berth that has eluded them since 2011? What if their need for a starter wasn’t amplified because Eflin is out indefinitely with tendinitis in his right knee? What if the trade for lefty Tyler Anderson hadn’t fallen through Tuesday when the Pirates balked at the medical records of a Phillies minor-league pitcher named Cristian Hernandez?
“I can’t even answer that question, but probably,” Dombrowski said of whether the Phillies still would’ve used Howard to acquire Gibson if they had gotten Anderson. “Probably. I’d have to think more thoroughly about that one. I guess we’d have been open to it.”
Not exactly the way Phillies officials used to talk about Howard, is it?
“It could’ve gone a million different ways,” Howard said. “But I’m at peace with how it went and I’m excited to turn a new page and see what there is in store in Texas.”