Phillies win, but serious questions about Spencer Howard linger originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia
Maybe the Phillies have this all wrong. Maybe Ranger Suarez should be the guy starting games and Spencer Howard should be coming out of the bullpen.
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Or maybe Howard should be in the minor leagues, learning how to get to the middle innings, never mind through them, which should be a minimal requirement for anyone holding down a spot in a big-league starting rotation.
Howard hit a wall again Saturday afternoon and failed to get out of the third inning. The Phillies capitalized on an error and scored four unearned runs in the fourth inning — three came on Andrew McCutchen's 10th homer of the season — and went on to beat the Washington Nationals, 5-2, in front of just 16,118 at Citizens Bank Park.
Suarez was huge with three innings of scoreless relief after Howard's exit. He faced 12 batters and only three of them reached base on a pair of errors — yeah, the sloppy Phillies made three of them — and a hit batsman. Suarez' scoreless innings streak is now at 12⅓. For the season, he's allowed just one unearned run in 17⅓ innings.
Suarez, a confident, 25-year-old lefty from Venezuela, was developed as a starting pitcher in the Phillies' minor-league system and made three starts for the club in 2018.
Maybe it's time he got another one.
Howard has been the Phillies' top starting pitching prospect for several years. He doesn't turn 25 until the end of July and he's far from a finished product. His future remains potentially bright, but is that future as a starter or a reliever? And is his future being best served by being in the majors, struggling to get through three innings, at this point?
For the second time in three starts this season, Howard's fastball velocity dipped considerably as the game hit the third inning. He showed a 97-mph fastball in the first inning and racked up a bunch of 93s in the third inning. His final fastball of the day was just 91 mph.
The Phillies insist that Howard is healthy. There's no way a prospect as valuable as him would be on the mound if he wasn't. It remains a mystery why Howard is not holding his velocity. The team has evaluated his diet and the pitcher recently disclosed that he's begun eating a banana with peanut butter shortly before starts to build some quick energy. (Try it with a glass of cold milk. Not bad.)
A quickly fading fastball wasn't Howard's only issue Saturday. His command was poor. He faced 11 batters. He walked two of them and hit another. He threw 48 pitches — 26 strikes and 22 balls, not a good ratio.
In three starts, Howard has walked nine batters in 9⅓ innings.
Howard also struggled as a starter last season. He allowed 30 hits and 10 walks in 24⅓ innings and pitched to a 5.92 ERA. He did miss time with shoulder stiffness/soreness.
It's possible the Phillies will give Howard another start. If they were in complete development mode, they would. But as long as they have a chance in the NL East, they may have to consider making a change. Matt Moore could be ready for another look in the rotation. Or maybe it's Suarez' time to get a look. He has been the first guy out of the bullpen in all three of Howard's starts this season and delivered two, three and three scoreless innings, respectively. With his first-inning power, maybe Howard is better suited to be a reliever. Or maybe he needs to go back to Triple A and learn to get to the middle innings.
However you slice it, Phillies officials have something to think about when it comes to their top starting pitching prospect and the balance between his development and winning ballgames.