BALTIMORE -- By creating a vacancy in their starting rotation last week, the Rangers hoped to accomplish two aims. On the front end, there is logic in transitioning struggling lefty Taylor Hearn back to a relief role, where he’s historically had more success than as a starter. And on the back end, the rejiggering creates long-term opportunity for Spencer Howard, who the club wants to see blossom into a rotation fixture.
That may well occur in time, with Howard now expected to get a long look at the back end of Texas’ rotation going forward. The results, though, remained mixed Tuesday, when his return to the Majors was the early focus of the club’s eventual extra-inning loss to the Orioles.
Working on a moderate pitch count, Howard allowed four runs in four innings and did not factor in the decision, with all the damage against him coming in Baltimore’s four-run second. The 25-year-old righty is considering it something to build on after struggling mightily at the big league level in parts of the past three seasons.
"He seemed like he was in a good place,” manager Chris Woodward said. “I don’t think it was a terrible outing. I just think the execution needs to get a little bit better overall, like when things turn sour, like in that second inning. His stuff is good enough to get anybody out. It’s his first start back so I figured there might be some inconsistency to it, and hopefully the next time out, he’s better.”
Said Howard: "Once the adrenaline wears off a bit and you can get in that good rhythm when everything slows down, that’s what I’m essentially searching for. It’s a matter of getting to that earlier and earlier in games. That’s when pitching becomes fun.”
It’s rarely been fun for Howard in the big leagues since he came to the Rangers last July in the Kyle Gibson Trade Deadline deal with the Phillies, for whom he was the No. 1 prospect as recently as 2020. A second-round pick of the Phils in '17, Howard jumped from Double-A to the debut with Philadelphia in '20, finishing the year as a Top 30 prospect per MLB Pipeline before being acquired by Texas. He made eight ineffective starts down the stretch for the Rangers and made their roster out of camp this spring, but was sent down after three tough appearances, including a six-run start in Toronto, this April. He also spent two short stints on the injured list.
At Triple-A Round Rock, things were different. Howard thrived despite the high-offense environment of the Pacific Coast League. He also appeared to be finding his stride as Hearn’s struggles compounded, peaking with an eight-run start June 18 at Detroit.
Hearn went 4-5 with a 5.86 ERA in 14 games (13 starts), adding to already severe career spits between starting (6.36 ERA, 25 starts) and relieving (3.38 ERA, 46 games). Meanwhile, Howard pitched to a 3.24 ERA with 28 strikeouts in 25 innings over his last five starts before joining the Rangers’ taxi squad last week.
“I’m just trying to settle in and compete,” Howard said. “Getting away from competing and actually pitching, it’s never a fun feeling on the mound when you don’t feel like you're in control. But I think that’s something I’ve somewhat found in my last few starts at Triple-A, so now it’s just a matter of getting to that feeling early in games up here.”
The Rangers are also looking for that consistency from Glenn Otto, another young righty who has had difficulty translating Triple-A success into big league results. Otto probably deserved better Wednesday, taking a hard-luck loss despite five innings of two-run (one earned) ball in the Rangers’ 2-1 series-finale loss to the Orioles. He and Howard should get considerable run as Texas’ fourth and fifth starters, especially with No. 5 prospect Cole Winn scuffling at Triple-A. Together, they own a collective 6.92 ERA in 40 starts since 2020, though though Howard has made only 10 for Texas.
“Some pitchers actually pitch really well at Triple-A and then come here and things speed up a little bit,” Woodward said. “With Spencer, the big question is: ‘Is he executing? Or is he just chucking it up there and just overpowering Triple-A hitters?' We need to truly have an evaluation process. Can [what he’s doing] play at this level? Then there is the psychological aspect. When he gets here, does that change? That’s probably my biggest question about him. When he comes up here, why do things change for him?”