Ed Howard's struggles during the 2021 season weren't a secret. The Chicago Cubs' prospect finished the year with a .225/.277/.315 slash line and four home runs in 326 plate appearances at Low-A Myrtle Beach. The Cubs selected Howard with the No. 16 pick in the first round of the 2020 MLB Draft. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 20-year-old missed out on valuable playing time. His 2020 high school senior season at Mount Carmel in Chicago was canceled. And of course, there wasn't a minor league season in 2020, so Howard didn't make his pro debut until the fall.
Being the first Illinois high school position player drafted in the first round since Jayson Werth in 1997 comes with considerable hype and a high level of expectations. Is it fair? Probably not, but the player immediately becomes one the fans latch onto. On top of that, Howard could become the first Chicago-born player ever drafted by the Cubs in the first round to make it to the big leagues.
Was Ed Howard worth a first-round pick, and will he live up to the hype? Let's dive in below.
To answer these questions, we first need to understand the type of prospect Howard is. His draft profile indicates a skilled, glove-first shortstop with good bat-to-ball skills, good speed, and below-average power.
With that said, the Cubs drafted him with the vision that he'll be able to stick at shortstop, hit plenty of line drives at the plate, and be able to tap into more gap-to-gap and over-the-fence power as he matures and adds strength. However, a 30.1 percent strikeout rate with only 18 walks in 80 games played was not what the Cubs had in mind when they selected Howard. He was known for having a promising approach in high school.
Why did Howard struggle with strikeouts last year if he has such a good approach at the plate? It's a valid question.
Getting accustomed to professional pitching regardless of the level is always tricky, especially for a young player coming straight out of high school after missing almost an entire season of baseball. Not to mention, Howard missed over a month during the 2021 season due to a hamstring injury. It was hard for him to get into any rhythm. Nonetheless, he finished the year on a high note, hitting .333 with eight extra-base hits and a .884 OPS in his last 22 games of the campaign.
What About The Power?
Four home runs in 326 plate appearances aren't much to write home about. But the type of ascension and improvement it would take to see the power gains one would like from Ed Howard isn't unheard of.
Former San Diego Padres prospect Luis Urias comes to mind immediately. Although Howard projects to be a better fielder than Urias, MLB Pipeline listed Urias with a 60-grade hit tool and 40-grade power tool in 2017. From 2014-17, Urias's highest home run total across all levels of the minors in a single season was six. He didn't hit a single home run in 458 plate appearances in his first two seasons in the minors. MLB Pipeline listed Howard with a 50-grade hit tool. Although he isn't as highly graded as Urias, his power grade is 45, which is already better than Urias's past projection.
Fast forward to 2021. As a member of the Milwaukee Brewers, Urias smacked 23 homers in 570 plate appearances. He's made significant gains to achieve this, but it's not absurd to believe prospects can add power and strength to their game, especially if the hit tool is there. That leads us to our next question. Does Howard have a good hit tool?
Howard's Hit Tool
Typically, a player with a 50-grade hit tool is considered average. When it comes to Howard, it depends on the source. MLB Pipeline marks him with a 50-grade hit tool. FanGraphs dubs him 30 currently with a 45 future grade. On their scale, based on past articles and definitions provided, 45 stands for a player they project as a low-end major league regular or platoon player. In other words, his bat projects to be subpar.
Why is there so much disparity between the grades from MLB Pipeline and FanGraphs? In short, different scouts give different evaluations. Some scouts employ other parameters or criteria that they are looking for when judging individual player skill sets. In fact, the only thing the two sites seem to agree on from a grading standpoint is Howard's arm. They each have him marked as a 55-grade arm.
Building Power and Making Changes
According to Cubs' VP of Player Development Jared Banner, Ed Howard has been working all offseason with the team's strength guys and coaching staff to improve. "It was perfect. We started off more so with weights and conditioning and lifting in the gym a lot, and now we're getting more into the baseball side of things," said Howard.
From the sound of things, Howard has been on a strict offseason program, which involves nutritional planning, calculated training, and implementation of a mechanics change to his swing. Let's take a look at the videos below to see if we can spot some differences.
He kicks his leg slightly in the first video but gets the front foot down rather quickly. Also, he doesn't appear to have good timing, and it's not synced up to his weight transfer. Now, it's easy to say the timing was off when you pop out to right field. Nonetheless, it's almost like he got his front foot down too early and opened himself up, leaving him virtually powerless. In addition, he needs to improve the way he handles velocity upstairs in the zone.
In the second clip, Howard does a much better job timing the pitch. However, similarly to the first video, he puts his foot down quickly. It might not be the best example given how well he struck the ball, but let's say it's possible he didn't get all of it while still getting a ton of it.
Lastly, the above tweet is a recent clip of Howard taking batting practice at the Cubs' minor league Spring Training camp. Watch closely. You can see a slight adjustment in his front foot setup and load. Perhaps this was a point of emphasis during the offseason. In the video, Howard seems to be starting his kick earlier, and it's a bit more exaggerated and hung in the air before landing and following through with the rest of his swing. If this is a change that works for him, we could see more Howard dingers at Myrtle Beach this season, assuming that's where he'll spend most of his time.
Max exit velocity is a sexy way of describing a player's hardest-hit ball. Howard sat in the 94th percentile in max exit velocity in high school. In other words, there's some serious pop in his bat when he tees it up and barrels it. Ranking in the 94th percentile means Howard was elite among his peers.
If Ed Howard can tap into his potentially powerful exit velocities this upcoming season, make more regular contact, and begin to lift the ball, watch out. He's not going to become Luis Urias overnight. Still, there's a world in which Howard could be a 20-plus home run hitter of the future with above-average defensive grades between shortstop and second base.
Maybe the Cubs' decision to place Howard at Low-A Myrtle Beach was overzealous. However, skipping Rookie ball allowed him to gain experience against more advanced pitching. The previously mentioned Urias example wasn't meant to serve as a swing comparison. They are much different stylistically. Also, Urias's changes to become a better power hitter won't be the same for Howard. Urias seemingly tightened up his stance, switching from more of an open approach to a closed one. Howard already employs a reasonably closed stance.
If I undersold Howard's defensive abilities at all, that was not my intention. Truly, Howard has a gifted glove. He is fluid with his motions, displays soft hands, and has quick reactionary instincts plus a cannon for an arm. Those skills will play at shortstop, second base, and even third base as he ages and becomes less mobile. We saw him make several outstanding plays on defense in his first year of action.
With that said, he's not fully polished as a defender either. Howard made 12 errors in 79 games. 10 of those errors came at the shortstop position, where he had a 94.7 fielding percentage. That figure would've ranked eighth-worst out of 70 shortstops in the majors with at least 100 innings played last season.
Only time will tell what the future holds for Ed Howard. But there's a lot to like about his profile. There's also a lot to be skeptical about. However, changes made to his mechanics and training program in addition to a fully healthy season on the diamond can't hurt. He is one of the most fascinating Chicago Cubs prospects to watch in 2022.