CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Spencer Howard is not going to make the Phillies coming out of Spring Training. He knows that.
But the Phillies have said openly and often that they believe the 23-year-old righty will contribute in the big leagues at some point this season. Howard is their top pitching prospect and No. 34 overall, according to MLB Pipeline. They believe he is the real deal, which is why they do not want to trade him -- even for somebody like Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant. They imagine Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler and Howard anchoring the top of the rotation for years.
But there is a catch in 2020: After Howard pitched just 92 1/3 innings last year because of a right shoulder injury, the Phillies have him on an innings limit. He is going to be monitored closely, so hopefully he has enough innings remaining late in the season to help them make a postseason push.
“I’ve heard a bunch about that,” Howard said on Friday at Spectrum Field. “I’ve heard a lot of different tales about what could happen, so I’m just going to do what I can, take care of my business and the rest will fall in place.”
Added Phillies general manager Matt Klentak: “Every pitch he throws in February is a pitch he’s not going to be able to throw in September. Every pitch he throws in March is a pitch he’s not going to be able to throw in September. … We are going to be very slow with Spencer on purpose. It’s not because something is wrong and it’s not because we don’t like him. It’s because we like him a lot, and I think he has a very bright future for us and we need to set him up for success to pitch deep into the season this year.”
The Phillies selected Howard in the second round of the 2017 Draft out of Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo. Last season, he went 2-1 with a 1.29 ERA in seven starts last season with Class A Advanced Clearwater, 1-0 with a 2.35 ERA in six starts with Double-A Reading and 1-1 with a 2.11 ERA in six starts in the Arizona Fall League. Howard's fastball, which sits comfortably in the mid-90s, touched 99 mph in the AFL. His curveball, slider and changeup are potentially dominant out pitches.
It is why Howard finds himself in his first big league camp, where he hopes to pick the brains of Nola, Wheeler and Jake Arrieta.
Howard already learned from one of the best. He had a 4.45 ERA in nine starts with Class A Williamsport after he got drafted in 2017. He struck out 40, but he walked 18 in 28 1/3 innings. Howard found himself focusing too much on in-game competition, and not enough on the work that needed to be accomplished between starts.
Roy Halladay set him straight. Howard spoke with Halladay two or three times while the Hall of Famer worked as a mental skills coach for the Phillies before he died in a plane crash in November 2017.
“It was gaining confidence from preparation,” Howard said. “I started to focus more on my lifting routine and my arm care so that when the game comes, you’re not worried about if you did enough stuff. It’s just, 'I did my work, so now I can just go and pitch.' If you do what you’re supposed to do, you don’t have to worry about anything else.”
The talent and work has Howard on the brink of the big leagues. Asked if his professional baseball career is what he expected from the moment the Phillies selected him with the 45th overall pick in 2017, he paused for a moment.
“I would say it’s going according to plan,” Howard said, chuckling. “As good as it can possibly go. I know I’ve had a few couple-month stretches where I’ve been the worst pitcher on the face of the planet. It’s definitely been a challenge mentally, but I’ve learned a lot. Hopefully I learn a lot more.”