CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Spencer Howard wondered more than anybody what he had cooking in his right shoulder last season.
The 24-year-old experienced sharp pain in the same shoulder in 2019. This time, however, it felt different. Whatever it was, it caused a drop in velocity from start to start and inning to inning. (An MRI exam revealed rotator cuff inflammation.) He struggled. The organization’s No. 1 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline, went 1-2 with a 5.92 ERA in six starts before landing on the injured list.
“It wasn’t as sharp of a pain, like pinchy in my shoulder,” Howard explained on Wednesday on a Zoom call. “It was more of like, 'Oh, I don’t have that much there anymore.' Which was more concerning to me honestly, because it was like, well, am I just a bad pitcher now? Am I going to throw this slow forever? Is this, like, the new me?”
Howard believes that pitcher is gone. The Phillies do, too. Howard sounded confident following an offseason in which he got healthy and got back into a routine. He believes he will return to form. The Phillies hope he lives up to the expectations as one of the top prospects in baseball.
So far, so good, Howard said. He is letting loose this spring. He hasn’t seen a velocity reading yet, but the ball feels good coming out of his hand.
“It’s a feeling that I was searching for all last year,” he said. “It just wasn’t the same coming out. I’m happy with where I’m at right now.”
Howard enters camp competing with Matt Moore, Chase Anderson and Vince Velasquez for the final two spots in the rotation. At first glance, the fact the Phillies signed Moore and Anderson to Major League contracts worth $3 million and $4 million, respectively, makes them favorites. If Howard does not outperform Moore, Anderson and Velasquez to make the rotation, he could open in the bullpen or Triple-A.
“I know if I take care of what I need to take care of and if I can keep my shoulder feeling good … I won’t have to worry about anything,” Howard said. “I know that the way I feel right now, I feel better than probably the last three years going into Spring Training. Physically, I feel ready for whatever they throw at me.”
If Howard makes the rotation, how long can he last? The right-hander threw 24 1/3 innings last season, 92 1/3 innings in 2019 and 112 innings in '18. He will be monitored.
“The word is not ‘concern’ for me,” Phillies pitching coach Caleb Cotham said about Howard’s workload. “That’s not a word that I would use. I think it’s something that we really need to pay attention to the details. It’s how well are we accounting for all the things that aren’t even in the game? How well are we recovering? How well are we really taking ownership of our intensity in between starts, our work in between starts? The recovery modalities. These guys have really, really nice routines. So can we help them a little bit better to recover a little bit better so that there’s less cost every time? It’s how many different things can we surround the player with to help that?
“Now, obviously the workload and doing best by a Spencer Howard is really important. No, you can’t expect him to throw 200-250 innings, but I think it’s just the conversation of what’s best for him, almost checking in on it pretty consistently, almost daily in how it’s going to be a little quicker to make a pivot in a plan or something like that. But I wouldn’t use concern. It’s something that’s just going to be conversation daily for the whole year.”
Mental skills adjustments
The Phillies announced their expanded mental performance department. Ceci Craft will be the new mental performance director, and she will work with Major League players. She spent six seasons with Cleveland in a similar role. She also worked with the U.S. Army, supporting Special Operations Soldiers at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.
“Her past experiences in baseball and the military make her particularly well-suited to optimize mental performance in high-pressure environments like the one that we compete in,” Phillies general manager Sam Fuld said in a statement. “Ceci is viewed throughout the industry as a leader in her field, and as we went through the interview process, it became clear why. Her intellect, empathy and enthusiasm immediately stood out to us, and we feel lucky to add her to our team.”
Hannah Huesman has been promoted to mental performance coordinator. She joined the Phillies in 2018 as the team’s Minor League mental skills coach. She will work with Craft. Manuel Antuna, Frances Cardenas and Geoff Miller return as mental performance coaches.
• Iván Nova will start Sunday’s Grapefruit League opener against the Tigers in Lakeland, Fla., at 1:05 p.m. ET.