CLEARWATER, Fla. -- It is a brief statement, but with three words, Phillies director of player development Josh Bonifay reassured fans."He'll be ready," Bonifay said. The Philadelphia executive was referring to Spencer Howard, a non-roster invitee to Major League Spring Training camp who has yet to appear in a Grapefruit League
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- It is a brief statement, but with three words, Phillies director of player development Josh Bonifay reassured fans.
"He'll be ready," Bonifay said.
The Philadelphia executive was referring to Spencer Howard, a non-roster invitee to Major League Spring Training camp who has yet to appear in a Grapefruit League game. MLB.com's No. 34 overall prospect was shut down in mid-February after suffering a right knee injury during a pre-camp workout but has returned to the mound to throw live batting practice sessions. Based on stuff alone, the 23-year-old right-hander is back to his usual self.
"Besides the beginning portion, he's been unbelievable," said Bonifay. "His last live BP, he was up to 98-99. His curveball is working. His slider is working, as is his changeup. It's some of the best stuff that I've seen from any young pitcher that I've been around."
An injury is always a concern, and all the more so for Howard, who was limited to 71 innings in 2019. The 2017 second-rounder opened with Class A Advanced Clearwater last year but missed two months after developing a shoulder issue in late April.
When Howard did return, he showed the potential of a high-end Major League starter. Following a July 26 promotion to Double-A Reading, he posted a 2.35 ERA and 0.95 WHIP with 38 strikeouts and nine walks over 30 2/3 innings. He picked up a few more innings in the Arizona Fall League, finishing with a 2.11 ERA and 27 K's over 21 1/3 frames.
"He was able to command his fastball," Bonifay said. "He was able to command his curveball. He's able to use it as an out pitch and for strikes. He throws a changeup whenever he wants -- ahead, behind in the count. When he's throwing it off the same release angle as his fastball, it's very difficult to pick up. He got comfortable throwing all four pitches for strikes quickly."
Those improvements to his arsenal, along with the performances in the Eastern and Arizona Fall Leagues, were enough to thrust Howard into the upper half of MLB.com's Top-100 prospect rankings. They also made the Cal Poly San Luis Obispo product a key asset at a time when the Major League club faces serious questions about the back end of its rotation. A healthy Howard could have competed with Zach Eflin, Vince Velasquez, Nick Pivetta and Cole Irvin in Grapefruit League games, but because of the ankle woes, he's been brought up more slowly. A healthy Howard could force his way into the Phillies over the summer after likely opening back at Reading or at Triple-A Lehigh Valley. For now, the Phillies have one focus -- making sure Howard is healthy.
"Our training staff has done a tremendous job at monitoring him and making sure his work is specific to his need and his body," Bonifay said. "We don't expect him to have any hiccups."
Phils not worried about Garcia: 2018 and 2019 were vastly different seasons for No. 6 Phillies prospect Luis Garcia. In the earlier campaign, the switch-hitting shortstop won the Gulf Coast League batting title with a .369 average and finished with a .921 OPS over 43 games. That level of performance caused Philadelphia to push the Dominican Republic native all the way up to Class A Lakewood for his age-18 season, only to see him hit .186 over 127 games. His .516 OPS was the lowest among all South Atlantic League qualifiers.
Don't expect any panic from the Phillies front office, though.
"Any time you send a young player to a league where he was three, three-and-a-half, almost four years younger than average, it's going to be a challenge," Bonifay said. "They're more polished. They can expose some things. But we're not worried about Luis Garcia. Luis Garcia's going to play shortstop. He'll be a good hitter with some power from the left side. He just has to continue to not swing at curveballs that are out of the zone. But kid's got some serious tools. We're not worried about him. He's going to be in a much better place."
Garcia has a plus arm and two more above-average tools in his speed and defense. If he can improve his pitch recognition and develop average potential with the bat, the rest of the baseball world will see what the Phillies do, and after one year of playing regular-season ball, the organization expects those improvements to be right around the corner.
"He learned how to ride a bus for 14 hours," Bonifay said. "He learned how to hit when it's 20 degrees and the wind's blowing at 30 mph. He learned how to play a lot of different positions. The year before, he didn't play second base. He learned what it takes to play at night and then the next morning. That's different from the GCL, where you know where you're going all day. He grew up. It was a great year for him to make adjustments."
Ready for more of Morales: The Lakewood player who took the biggest jump last year may have been No. 4 Phillies prospect Francisco Morales. The 20-year-old right-hander, who signed for $900,000 out of Venezuela in July 2016, moved to a full-season affiliate for the first time and finished with a 3.82 ERA and 129 strikeouts over 96 2/3 innings. His 30.9 percent K rate was fourth-highest among Sally League pitchers with at least 90 innings pitched.
Expect to see Morales make the jump to Class A Advanced Clearwater in 2020. With a plus fastball and plus slider already in the mix, his future as a Major League starter could come into clearer view with only a few more adjustments.
"One of the things he needs to do is continue to throw his changeup and develop that as a starter," Bonifay said. "Other than that, we were extremely impressed at his ability to throw every five days, to throw in the front end and the back end of the piggyback. He ran his fastball up to 98. His slider was a 32-percent swing-and-miss pitch. It was filthy. We are very excited about his year coming up."
Stott starting spot not yet settled: The Phils made waves last year by sending 2018 third overall pick Alec Bohm to Class A Lakewood to open his first full season. That was surprising, given Bohm's college pedigree and level of success. The organization noted Bohm's limited time at Class A Short Season Williamsport in his Draft year -- he missed time after being hit in the knee by a pitch -- as a reason to take things slowly, and it paid off with Bohm climbing to Reading by season's end.
The club has similar decision to make with 2019 14th overall pick Bryston Stott. Like Bohm, Stott comes from the college ranks as an impressive shortstop out of UNLV. Unlike Bohm, he got plenty of playing time in the New York-Penn League, where he appeared in 44 games and hit .274/.370/.446 with five homers and five stolen bases. An opening assignment to the Florida State League seems more likely for Stott than it was for Bohm, but Bonifay said those talks haven't even begun in earnest yet.
"We'll see how the rosters fall, but right now, there's been zero discussion about putting in a plan like Bohm just yet," he said. "He's improved defensively [from last year]. His at-bats have been very good in our games on the Minor League side. We've brought him over a few times for the Major League side. He's going to be a good young player too."
Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.