Spencer Howard gets the start for the Phillies Wednesday in Clearwater against the Yankees. He and Chase Anderson are flip-flopping from last week, when Anderson started and Howard came on in relief.
The Phillies did the same thing Tuesday with Vince Velasquez and Matt Moore. Velasquez started the game and pitched 1⅔ innings, then Moore pitched two in relief. All four men are competing for two rotation spots. So far, Moore has looked the best.
It's all on the table for Howard. The Phillies' 24-year-old top pitching prospect could begin the season in the big-league rotation, in the big-league bullpen or at Triple A. It will not be some big setback if Howard is not in Philadelphia on April 1. The Phillies have much more rotation depth this year than they did last and can afford to move at a logical pace with Howard.
As a rookie last season, Howard wasn't overly impressive. His fastball velocity, in particular, was not at the same level it was in the minor leagues or in spring training 2020. It was the second consecutive summer that he dealt with a shoulder issue and that played a role. Howard himself has talked about his dissatisfaction with how last year went.
"Last year I would feel good and then all of a sudden, I mean, everybody saw the velo would go down during games and it would take me a little bit longer to get warmed up," he said two weeks ago. "So, it wasn't as sharp of a pain, like pinchy, in my shoulder. It was more of like, 'Oh, I don't have that much there anymore,' which was more concerning to me, honestly, because it was like, 'Well, am I just a bad pitcher now? Am I going to throw slow forever? Is this the new me?' But getting away from last year and having some time off really helped, so I'm excited."
Bryce Harper, who has been a vocal supporter of young teammates and Phillies prospects since arriving here two springs ago, spoke last week about how important Howard could be for the 2021 Phillies even if he's not here on Opening Day. Harper cited recent examples of young pitchers making an impact late in the season out of the bullpen.
"I'm not saying, 'We need him right now,' but if a guy goes down or something like that," Harper said. "I think he still needs to get a little bit better and figure out what he wants to do. It's in there. We want him here. We need him here. But also, these guys (Moore and Anderson) are on one-year deals as well.
"He could see himself, possibly later this year, get a start or a guy gets hurt and he slides right in. Or he pitches his way into the rotation right now. You never know. I never know what (Joe) Girardi is thinking or anybody else. But we're going to need him. It doesn't matter if we're going to need him now, if we're going to need him at the end, if we're going to need him out of the bullpen in the playoffs.
"You've seen that in years past where you've had young starters come out of the 'pen and have done great things for their teams in the postseason because guys haven't seen them or they come out throwing 98, 99 with a hammer and a changeup and you're like, 'Oh my gosh, this guy's nasty.' Then that next year, they're a starter.
"He could be that guy for us, and I think everybody knows that. I'm looking forward to what he does."