Bryan Price

What makes Spencer Howard such an exciting piece of Phillies' future?

What makes Spencer Howard such an exciting piece of Phillies' future?

Spencer Howard is coming. The Phillies said everything they could say Saturday without making it official that Howard, their top prospect, will make his MLB debut starting one of the two games of their doubleheader Sunday.

Manager Joe Girardi really left things up to interpretation before the Phillies' series opener against the Braves, saying the nod would go to a young right-hander with the initials S.H. A few minutes later, he said that he was "not ready to make an official announcement until tomorrow, but if nothing changes, you can expect it to be Spencer Howard."

Plenty of hype surrounds the 24-year-old Howard, the Phillies' second-round pick in 2017. He has the tools of an ace.

"Big fastball, really good slider-changeup combination, emerging curveball," pitching coach Bryan Price said Saturday in a 15-minute Zoom call that was almost entirely about Howard. "And he throws strikes, he competes well, controls the running game. He's a very polished young guy with a big arm. 

"Quite often when you find guys with velocity, it takes time for them to figure out command or how to sequence their pitches. I just think he's a polished kid. I think he's ready to come up and help us."

That description of the typical young pitcher with velocity who takes time to figure it out applies to the pitcher Howard is poised to eventually replace in the Phillies' rotation: Vince Velasquez. Velasquez, at 28, doesn't have much rope left. He has a 4.75 ERA in more than 100 appearances as a Phillie (93 starts). He's allowed 1.53 home runs per nine innings as a Phillie, easily the highest home run rate of any pitcher in Phillies history with as many innings.

The Phillies could still end up starting Velasquez throughout the 2020 season because they have six doubleheaders over the next six weeks, i.e. six instances when they'll need a sixth starting pitcher.

It will be interesting Sunday to compare and contrast Howard and Velasquez in the two starts. It would not be a surprise to see Howard strike out eight Braves over five scoreless innings. Nor would it be a surprise if he struggled in his first start against a potent big-league lineup.

"He has deception, he pitches with a high fastball but can also create good downward angle," Price said. "I think getting the first one under his belt — hopefully there are many more to come in Philadelphia — is something we're all excited to see."

Howard was a late bloomer. He did not start games until his junior season at Cal Poly. His freshman season, he was one of the last players to make the roster. In the span of just a few years, his velocity rose from the upper-80s to the 90s to the point that he touched 100 mph in the minors.

"One of the great things about the sport of baseball is that not everybody is a prodigy. Not everybody is Alex Rodriguez or Bryce Harper, on the map at 15, 16, 17 years old," Price said.

"I think in Spencer's case, he had to have that skill set in there. The aptitude and the feel. And so as the arm strength built, he had enough feel for pitching to make some really significant strides in a short period of time."

The next step: A start in South Philly against the NL East favorites.

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Phillies bullpen: 'Second layer' of relievers crucial with so many doubleheaders

Phillies bullpen: 'Second layer' of relievers crucial with so many doubleheaders

With at least six doubleheaders over the next six weeks, the Phillies could find themselves in a position similar to this past Wednesday semi-frequently. And that is not good for a team with so many bullpen questions.

On Wednesday, the Phils did not use closer Hector Neris in the second game of a doubleheader against the Yankees because he warmed up and threw one pitch to finish Game 1. Instead, the Phils went with Tommy Hunter in the last inning of a tie game at home — a spot that ordinarily goes to a closer — and he put four men on, allowing two runs without recording an out in a 3-1 Phillies loss.

What happens the next time Neris is used in Game 1 and things are late and close in Game 2? What happens if the Phillies are forced to also use their few other somewhat reliable relievers in the first game like Adam Morgan and Jose Alvarez?

"We have to get our bullpen 2.0, which means we know that our veteran guys Neris, Morgan, Hunter and Alvarez, we know they have a track record," first-year Phillies pitching coach Bryan Price said Saturday. "It's finding out what these other guys can do because they will have to assist and take the load off of those guys when it comes to finish a game, the second game of a doubleheader where you have a chance to sweep but you've used your high-leverage guys in the first game. 

"We don't want to get to that point where we have to throw our best guys two games and then have to do it again in two or three days. It's important that we have a second layer of bullpen guys that are established and trustworthy in those late-game situations. And that's what we're finding out here in the early part of this 60-game season."

Middle relief is an issue for most teams, but perhaps most importantly, the Phillies lack true right-handed setup options in front of Neris. They do not have a right-hander in the 'pen with a big, consistently plus fastball. Theoretically, it could be Nick Pivetta, but he so frequently misses over the middle of the plate. 

When you know you have the eighth inning locked down, close games become less stressful. When you don't have one, every night is a cross-your-fingers adventure.

The Phils' bullpen held up again on Saturday night, allowing just one baserunner over three scoreless innings in a 5-0 win over the Braves. Over the last two games, the maligned unit has allowed just two runs over eight innings.

"We're not a power bullpen per se, compared to a lot of other clubs," Price said. "But what we were excited about coming out of spring training was we had a true sinkerballer in Reggie McClain. We had a guy with a depth changeup like Deolis Guerra. Each one of these guys had a skill set that really seemed to work well. And then of course Ramon Rosso has one of the best arms in our bullpen, power and a hard breaking pitch."

Perhaps the Phillies' bullpen would be farther ahead if it had any semblance of a routine. Their season began two weeks ago Friday night, and entering the Braves series, the Phillies had missed as many games to postponements as they had played.

"This has been a mess for us," Price understated. "This isn't about excuses, it's about the reality. We went a stretch there where we weren't able to play a game. We had one scrimmage in that week. We got on the field one time in five days during a stretch and then we come out of it and go to Yankee Stadium right away. 

"Our starters are losing the ability to get stretched out and that puts a bigger onus on the bullpen. There's zero continuity. We haven't gotten to a stretch in the season where we've been able to play three, four, five, six, seven days in a row. Where guys can get regular work and start to understand if there is a role definition. Right now, we've got a kid like Rosso who hasn't pitched since opening day on July 24. 

"Setting expectations for young people that aren't terribly experienced at this level is unrealistic in these first couple weeks. But after these first couple weeks, we'll have a better idea of what to work with."

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When will pitching prospect Spencer Howard’s bright future in Philly begin?

When will pitching prospect Spencer Howard’s bright future in Philly begin?

Like everyone else in the Phillies organization, new pitching coach Bryan Price has been impressed with right-hander Spencer Howard.

"If this kid is the guy we think he is — and we do — then he's going to have a really nice future in Philadelphia," Price said.

So when will that future begin?

Months ago, before baseball was shut down by the coronavirus pandemic, Phillies officials envisioned Howard getting to the majors at some point in 2020.

It wasn't going to happen at the start of the season — for a couple of reasons. First, after pitching just 92⅓ innings and dealing with shoulder tendinitis last season, Howard's workload was going to monitored closely in 2020. The Phillies were going to pull him back early in the season so he could use his bullets — in the majors — later in the season. Pulling in the reins on Howard early in the season would have also allowed the Phillies to push back the pitcher's potential free agency by a year. That's not a popular practice with players — and it might be addressed by the union in negotiations for the next Collective Bargaining Agreement — but it makes sense from a front-office perspective.

Baseball's shutdown has eliminated the need to limit Howard's workload for 2020. If he was part of the Phillies' starting rotation for the entire 60-game season, he would make about a dozen starts. No problem.

But the whole service-time, extra-year-of-control matter still exists. That's why the Phillies might decide against putting Howard on the active, 30-man roster when the season opens a week from Friday night. The team could hold Howard back six days before adding him to the roster and therefore preserve the extra year of control. In those six days, Howard would probably pitch once and with early-season innings limits on all pitchers, he'd probably max out about 65 pitches or four innings in that outing. Trading a year of control for four innings — even in a short season when every game is magnified — makes little sense. So, it won't be surprising if Howard continues to build innings with the satellite club in Lehigh Valley for at least a week or so when the Phillies start the season.

But that doesn't mean Howard won't be around for the bulk of the season.

He'll get here.

Probably quickly.

And if he performs well, he'll stay — possibly with a significant spot in the rotation.

"I would really hope and expect to see him pitching here if not on opening day, then at some point in time because he really needs the work and I think he's ready to compete at this level," said Price, who was previously pitching coach in Seattle, Arizona and Cincinnati. (He also managed the Reds.) 

Howard, who turns 24 in two weeks, has been touted as having top-of-the-rotation potential.

Price, however, is reluctant to comment on Howard's ceiling and that's probably wise. Howard was selected in the second round of the 2017 draft. He has reached 100 innings in the minors just once. He will control his own career trajectory. And he needs to be on the mound to do that.

"You don't really want to talk about repetitions or the importance of workload, but you can't turn a blind eye to it either," Price said.

"I stay away from (commenting on a pitcher's ceiling) and I'll tell you why. Because when you start talking about assigning expectations, especially if you rank like No. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 — we don't know what these guys are until they come up here and perform.

"We know that (Howard) would be a top-end prospect in any organization because he has power, he throws strikes, he's athletic, he has a really, really good changeup and breaking ball. The key component there is stuff with strikes, stuff with command. So the sky is the limit.

"In the same respect, you have to get to the big leagues and perform at this level before you define where you are: starter or reliever, No. 1 or No. 5, or somewhere in between. I'll reserve judgment on that and let him pitch his way wherever he gets to."

In other words, the ball is in Howard's hand and he will control the trajectory of his career.

He next gets the ball on Thursday when he's scheduled to pitch three innings in an intrasquad game.

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