The Phillies optioned righty Spencer Howard to their alternate site this week, but it’s not the demotion it might appear to be upon first glance. Rather, they’ll get him stretched out to work as a starter over the next few weeks with an eye toward adding him to the rotation next month, Matt Breen of the Philadelphia Inquirer reports.
It’s a quick change in direction for a Phillies club that had previously planned to keep Howard, the organization’s top pitching prospect, in a bullpen role for the 2021 season. President of baseball ops Dave Dombrowski plainly said as much prior to the season, but as Breen highlights, the team’s fourth and fifth spots in the rotation have yielded dreadful results.
Lefty Matt Moore, signed to a one-year deal on the back of a solid showing in Japan last year, has yet to give the Phillies a competitive start. He’s been tagged for a dozen earned runs on 17 hits with an ugly 12-to-9 K/BB ratio through 11 innings of work. Righty Chase Anderson was mostly solid during his first three starts, yielding two runs apiece, but those starts lasted just five, four and four innings, respectively. He was clobbered for six runs in 3 2/3 innings in his most recent turn (albeit at Coors Field). Vince Velasquez has made only one start, lasting four innings, and hasn’t fared especially well in relief.
Fortunately for the Phillies, the top three starters in their rotation have each been excellent. Ace Aaron Nola is sitting on a 2.84 ERA through 31 2/3 innings and recently hurled a shutout in which he punched out 10 Cardinals. Zack Wheeler’s strikeouts are back after a 2020 hiatus, and he’s sporting a 3.13 ERA through an identical 31 2/3 inning workload. Zach Eflin leads Philadelphia starters with a 2.77 ERA and a brilliant 19-to-2 K/BB ratio in 26 innings.
Ideally, Howard will get stretched out and turn that strong trio into a formidable quartet. The 2017 second-rounder has ranked among the game’s Top 50 prospects for the past two seasons, according to each of Baseball America, FanGraphs and MLB.com. He hasn’t exactly thrived in the Majors to this point (6.28 ERA, 4.44 SIERA), but he’s only tallied 28 1/3 MLB innings and is still just 24 years of age. We don’t have 2020 minor league numbers to look at for obvious reasons, but back in ’19, Howard tallied 71 innings across four levels and logged a combined 2.03 ERA with a brilliant 34.8 percent strikeout rate and a tiny 5.9 percent walk rate.
Of course, the Phillies’ initial reason for wanting to use Howard in the ’pen was to limit his 2021 workload after he battled shoulder troubles in both 2019 and 2020. He’s not going to be plugged into the rotation and given the go-ahead to toss six or seven innings every fifth day through season’s end. Breen suggests the righty could be tasked with working the first four or perhaps five innings of a game every fifth day. Perhaps both he and Anderson — if Anderson can continue working in mostly solid four- or five-inning blocks — could then round out the starting staff, with the Phils leaning more heavily on the ’pen on those days.
The Phillies have one of the game’s bottom 10 farm systems by most rankings (including BA and MLB.com), so it’s not a huge surprise that they’re lacking in upper-level alternatives to plug into the rotation. Left-hander Bailey Falter and righty Adonis Medina give them a pair of candidates, and both have already very briefly cracked the big leagues.
The Phils will surely have some other internal arms pop up, and they have some depth pieces like Bryan Mitchell and Enyel De Los Santos slated to begin the year in Triple-A. They were also among the teams to watch Anibal Sanchez’s workout last Friday. Still, if they continue to hover around .500 and remain in the playoff hunt, it’s easy to envision Dombrowski hitting the summer trade market in search of some arms to augment his starting staff.