20. Sam Howard (363 points, 30 ballots)
Sam Howard didn’t truly stand out as a prospect until his success this year in the offense-friendly California League. That’s not to say he came out of nowhere. A third round pick in 2014 who signed for $672k, the 23 year-old lefty hurler had a disappointing start to his professional career in 2014 with a 5.40 ERA in Grand Junction. Howard bounced back onto the prospect radar with a strong 2015 in Asheville. Over 134 innings for the Tourists, Howard had a 3.43 ERA, 3.22 FIP, 8.2 K/9, and 2.1 BB/9 to reach the edge of these rankings as 2016 began.
This season for High A Modesto, the 23-year-old lefty starter built on that Asheville success. In 65 2⁄3 frames with the Nuts, Howard put up a 2.47 ERA (3.46 FIP) and 1.02 WHIP while overpowering California League hitters with a 10.0 K/9 rate, earning a quick promotion to Double-A Hartford and his PuRPs debut in the midseason list. You can read more about that Asheville and Modesto success in Bobby DeMuro's profile of Howard from this past April.
With the Yard Goats and against players that were on average about 1.5 years older, Howard's performance regressed considerably, at least at first. Before the All-Star break, Howard threw 30 2⁄3 innings with a 6.41 ERA and allowed batters to hit .357 off him—a 2.05 WHIP with only a 5.9 K/9. That’s terrible.
The good news is that after the All-Star break Howard was a different pitcher. In 59 2⁄3 frames, Howard posted a much more palatable 2.72 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, and 7.4 K/9.
In all, Howard was fine in Double- A—a big step up in competition—but not much more. His 3.99 ERA (4.49 FIP) in 90 1⁄3 innings, 6.7 K/9, and 1.56 WHIP are not disqualifying for his prospect status by any means, but Howard will need to show that his early stumble in Hartford was a fluke.
Among the national scouting voices, Eric Longenhagen of FanGraphs is the high man, ranking Howard 16th in the system:
Howard repeats a fairly easy three-quarters delivery and produces a 90-93 mph fastball. His mid-80s slider is above average but scouts are skeptical about the future of the changeup, which was better with increased usage in 2016 but is still just fringe average. Howard turns 24 in March and it’s still likely that he becomes a fastball/slider reliever, but the changeup showed enough progression in 2016 that we can hold out hope for a back-end role.
Notably, Longenhagen ranks all of Howard’s offerings between 50 and 55 on his future value rank, with another 50 in Command.
MLB.com currently has Howard 20th in the system:
Howard now operates regularly in the low 90s and has reached as high as 96 mph with his fastball, which has quality sink that yields a lot of groundouts. His changeup has tumble and he throws it with deceptive arm speed. After throwing both a curveball and slider in college, he now operates with just the latter, which shows potential but still gets slurvy.
Howard never had trouble throwing strikes but learned during a rough pro debut that he needed to operate down in the strike zone. He could begin to advance quickly through the Minors, eventually winding up in Coors Field as a No. 4 starter.
Finally, John Sickels of SB Nation blog Minor League Ball put Howard 18th preseason:
Sam Howard, LHP, Grade C+: Age 23, polished strike thrower drafted out of Georgia Southern in third round in 2014, 3.43 ERA with 122/32 K/BB in 134 innings in Low-A, ground ball pitcher with low-90s fastball, average-to-plus change-up, decent slider, throws strikes. More of a potential number four but could move quickly from this point.
Given the improvement we saw from Howard late in the year, it’s a toss-up for me as to if he will repeat at Hartford next year or if he’ll be moved to Albuquerque right away. The most realistic major league debut date would probably be in 2018 for Howard—the first year after he'd become Rule 5 eligible (he’ll most likely be added to the 40 man roster)—but I wouldn’t rule out a bullpen cameo for him late in the year if the need arises. A polished back-end starter prospect like Howard is definitely a valuable asset for this system, worthy of being placed 22nd on my ballot with a 40+ FV.