Phillies to promote top prospect Spencer Howard for Sunday start

Phillies RHP Spencer Howard set for highly-anticipated MLB debut

Spencer Howard’s meteoric rise in professional baseball will reach its peak on Sunday when the Philadelphia Phillies’ No. 1 pitching prospect makes his Major League debut.

The Phillies are expected to call up Howard to start one of their doubleheader games against the Atlanta Braves on Sunday. The 6-3 right-hander with the 99 mph fastball is ranked as the 27th best prospect by Baseball America and 36th by MLB Pipeline.

Howard’s stuff is tantalizing. His fastball routinely sits in the mid-90s and touched 99 during the Arizona Fall League last year. His changeup, which MLB Pipeline calls “one of the nastiest secondary offerings,” comes at a hitter from the same arm angle as his fastball but 15 mph slower. And he’s capable of throwing in a curveball and slider.

Phillies fans will love Howard’s mix of speed and breaking stuff

This repertoire allowed Howard to dominate the minor leagues in limited action last year. He had a 2.03 ERA across four levels in 2019, with 94 strikeouts in just 71 innings. A nagging shoulder injury limited him to 30.2 innings above Single-A, but his 2.35 ERA for Double-A Reading in six starts would’ve ranked second in the Eastern League; his 11.2 strikeouts per innings would’ve led all pitchers. In the Arizona Fall League, he gave up just five earned runs in six starts, striking out 27 in 21.1 innings.

Phillies manager Joe Girardi and pitching coach Bryan Price are understandably excited about Howard’s potential and eager to get him in the rotation as quickly as possible.

“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 during Summer Camp, according to Scott Lauber of the Philadelphia Inquirer. “We know that he’d 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. The sky is the limit.”

Howard wasn’t a typical, highly-touted prospect entering college. He nearly quit baseball in high school to focus on volleyball. He walked on at Cal Poly and started his college career as a reliever. But, after making the transition to starter during his junior year and going 8-1 with a 1.95 ERA, his draft stock skyrocketed. The Phillies picked him in the second round, 45th overall in 2017.

His emergence on the Phillies pitching staff will give the club depth they’ll desperately need the rest of the season. A week-long layoff after a series with the Miami Marlins means the Phillies have six doubleheaders on their remaining schedule. They’ve only played seven games this season, with their pitching staff ranking third-last in the league with a 5.28 ERA.

Howard will help complement the Phillies’ established stars, Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler. Nola looked like a future Cy Young Award winner in 2018, winning 17 games and finishing second in the NL with a 2.37 ERA. But he regressed last season, his ERA rising by a run-and-a-half. Opponents batting average against his fastball went from .216 to .269, from .155 to .201 against his curveball. Nola continued those struggles in his start on Opening Day, giving up four runs against the Marlins. But his last start, on Wednesday against the Yankees, was much better as he struck out 12 in six innings while surrendering only one run. Wheeler, meanwhile, who signed a five-year, $118 million deal with the Phillies in the offseason, has a 2.08 ERA in two starts, both victories.

The rest of the rotation is unsettled. Former Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta has a 4.28 ERA in three seasons in Philadelphia. Vince Velasquez gave up four runs in just three innings in his only start so far in 2020.

Howard seems like an unlikely savior for a club expected to compete this season; after all, he’s never even pitched in Triple-A. But his impressive stuff has already caught the attention of the Phillies coaching staff, and they’ll finally found out on Sunday whether he’s capable of living up to the hype.

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