There’s nothing quite like a hard-throwing young pitcher arriving in the big leagues.
It’s different from almost anything else in sports, and lets fans dream. As the Phillies hint at Spencer Howard’s to the majors, it’s time to dream on what one of baseball’s best right-handed pitching prospects can be at Citizens Bank Park.
But it’s also a gut check moment for the current team and 2020 playoff race.
Howard isn’t just a top prospect and exciting young arm. He’s the x-factor for this team making it back to October for the first time in nearly a decade.
No pressure, kid!
Don’t expect the Phillies to talk like that, or place that kind of pressure on a 24-year-old that’s pitched only 30.2 innings above A-ball. That makes sense, and is prudent from a team perspective.
Allow me to do it, and lay out why Howard’s immediate performance (good or bad) will be what pushes (or fails to push) the Phillies toward October.
Let’s start with the team as it is, prior to Howard’s ascension onto the 28-man roster: Competitive, but flawed. Talented, but top heavy. The Phillies should compete for one of eight spots in the National League postseason race, but are hardly a lock to make it to the dance. Pitching depth is the biggest issue, and one that Howard can help mitigate.
Early on, starting pitching looks like it can be a strength. Aaron Nola (19 K, 1 BB) has been impressive. Zack Wheeler (55.3 ground ball rate) is generating the kind of contact that will play in any park. Jake Arrieta got stronger and actually missed some bats as his first start progressed. Zach Eflin became the first pitcher this season to go at least four innings vs. the Yankees without allowing a home run. Add in Howard and the rotation suddenly becomes really interesting.
Of course, that would mean subtracting Vince Velasquez and (for now) putting to rest the idea of Nick Pivetta getting another shot in the rotation. That (beyond the reality of each of their flaws as starters) could boost a bullpen that’s in desperate need of help, especially from right-handed pitchers. If Howard can stick in the rotation right away, the Phillies bullpen can try to adapt two power arms into much-needed help elsewhere.
Beyond the domino effect of Howard taking a rotation spot, a morale boost of a potential ace arriving can change the entire complexion of the team and clubhouse. Think about what Noah Syndergaard meant for the 2015 Mets or Shelby Miller for the 2013 Cardinals or Madison Bumgarner for the 2010 Giants or John Lackey for the 2002 Angels. All four of those teams rode rookie pitchers to World Series trips. All four of those teams had a different edge when those pitchers stepped on the rubber.
I’m not saying Howard is ready to get the Phillies to a World Series, but we’ve seen scripts like this before. And if the reaction and backing of teammates like Bryce Harper are an indication of the kind of stuff Howard possesses and is ready to unleash on the NL and AL East down the stretch, a difference maker is on the way.
Howard’s minor league numbers (12.0 K/9, 3.80 SO/BB, 0.4 HR/9) are all outstanding, and point to the kind of pitcher that will translate to the bigs. We’re talking about a power arm with swing and miss stuff. This is the kind of pitcher the Phillies rarely develop, and one that can change the course of the present and the future of the franchise.
The first two weeks of the Phillies season was marred by a poor bullpen, postponed games and worry about COVID-19 spread thanks to reckless behavior by the Marlins and Major League Baseball. But the Phillies are back now, and have something to play for. By the time late September rolls around, the idea of a Nola-Wheeler-Howard trio in a best-of-three playoff series is something that could have this city truly fired up for baseball for the first time in a very long time.
Howard is on his way, and the direction of the 2020 (and future) Phillies rests on his right arm.