If this had been your normal 162-game baseball season, Alec Bohm and Spencer Howard quite possibly would have become a storyline right about now.
In the Phillies’ perfect world, Bohm would have spent the first three months hitting for average and power at triple-A Lehigh Valley while Howard dominated the opposing hitters he faced in the International League. Perhaps together, they could have forced the front office to promote them to the big leagues.
This, of course, is going to be the most abnormal baseball season in history, but a critical decision about Bohm and Howard must be made anyway. The Phillies obviously know that because their top two prospects were both part of the 53-man training camp roster the team released Sunday night.
Now the question becomes whether they will be part of the 30-man opening-day roster and whether they will remain part of the roster when it is reduced to 28 players two weeks into the season and to the standard 26 in mid-August.
During a Zoom conference call Monday afternoon, general manager Matt Klentak was certainly open to the idea.
“Howard is interesting specifically because in Clearwater in February and March we talked a lot about the need to manage his workload just given the limited workload he had a year ago and not wanting to push him too much too soon,” Klentak said. “This year, with COVID being what it has been here the last few months, he obviously has had a chance to rest.
“I think the fact he is part of this 53-player group should reflect that we view him as a candidate to compete for us in this 60-game season. The fact that Bohm is on this roster is also reflective of the hope that he is able to contribute for us this year.”
Provided they are healthy, Howard and Bohm should be in the big leagues to start.
In the normal baseball world that ceased to exist March 12, the Phillies could have correctly argued that Bohm and Howard would benefit from some time at triple A, a level neither player had yet to reach in his professional career. But here in bizzaro baseball world, Coca-Cola Park, home of the IronPigs, will simply be used for taxi-squad workouts and games, neither of which will benefit the Phillies in the National League East standings.
Sure it would have been good for Bohm’s development if he could have spent more time working on his defense at third base while also facing more savvy opposing pitchers than he encountered a year ago in the minors.
But something even better has happened for the Phillies and their 2018 first-round pick. The introduction of the universal designated hitter has given the Phillies another position to stick Bohm in the lineup at least on a semi-regular basis. Instead of two places (first base and third base) to play him, they now have three.
Even if manager Joe Girardi can get him in the lineup only once or twice a week, the big leagues would still be a better place for him than taxi-squad land in the Lehigh Valley.
The Phillies did take things slow with Howard in spring training. He had just made his first appearance of spring training a couple days before the COVID-19 shutdown and the Phillies planned to control his innings at Lehigh Valley before possibly promoting him for a stretch run in August or September.
Now, like everybody else, his innings will be limited this season and the best thing for the Phillies and Howard’s development is to have him pitch as part of the rotation.
Vince Velasquez and Nick Pivetta might not like having to pitch in relief, but neither one can argue that he did not get a chance to prove he belonged in the rotation.
Even though they have not played at the triple-A level, Bohm and Howard have earned their big-league opportunities by excelling in the places they have played, including the Arizona Fall League last year.
Howard, who turns 24 on July 28, was selected 45th overall out of Cal Poly in 2017. Eleven college pitchers were taken ahead of him, but none of them have been as good during their minor-league careers.
Only Nate Pearson, taken 28th overall by Toronto, has posted a lower ERA in the minors than Howard, but he has thrown 88 fewer innings. The Blue Jays are seriously considering putting him in their rotation to start the season.
No college pitcher selected ahead of Howard has even come close to the 12 strikeouts per nine innings he has averaged. And in six AFL games last fall, Howard proved elite against some of the game’s best minor-league prospects, posting a 2.11 ERA while striking out 27 batters in 21⅓ innings.
Bohm, meanwhile, followed up his terrific season at three different minor-league stops by finishing second in the AFL with a .361 average while also contributing six doubles and two home runs in 19 games. And then he batted .409 in 13 Grapefruit League games.
Maybe we will find out that Howard and Bohm are not quite ready for the big leagues. But they have earned the chance to prove otherwise, and if there was ever season to give them that opportunity this is the one.