Once upon a time, Nick Howard and Jonathon Crawford were heralded pitching prospects from vaunted college programs. Howard was the No. 19 pick of the 2014 Daft, by the Reds, coming out of the University of Virginia. A year prior, Crawford was taken by the Tigers with the 20th overall selection out of the University of Florida and joined Howard in the Reds system in December 2014 in the Alfredo Simon trade.
Prior to the 2015 season, Howard was ranked as the organization's No. 3 prospect; Crawford was ranked No. 9. Then both fell off the radar due to a combination of command issues and shoulder injuries. But both are participating in instructional league play in Goodyear, Ariz., and are showing signs of perhaps heading back in the right direction.
Crawford has had a hard time staying on the mound since joining the Reds, compiling just 13 2/3 innings in 2015 and 37 2/3 in 2016. He did come back in 2017 health-wise, throwing 87 2/3 innings in the Florida State League. But he also walked more than eight batters per nine innings, showing there is considerable rust that still needs to come off. The Reds hope they can help him with that heading into his first normal, healthy offseason in a very long time, with a decision to be made about his ability to start connected to how he can improve in that regard.
"He struggled with his command, but his velocity came back," Reds farm director Jeff Graupe said. "He's here getting stuff to work on for his fastball command. We'll talk about his role in Spring Training. How he's doing with the strike zone will help determine that."
Howard last threw a competitive pitch on June 20, 2016, missing a year and a half because of a superior labral tear from anterior to posterior (SLAP) tear in his right shoulder. Pitching in one-inning stints as he makes baby steps back, he's put up three scoreless innings. His velocity hasn't returned to where it was, but he's hit 93 mph this fall and he's shown a decent fastball-slider combination.
"He's been very good," Graupe said. "It's seeing him healthy, seeing him competitive, seeing him enjoying his time out there. It's been rewarding for him and the whole staff out there. It's been a lot of fun to watch."
Howard will also have a normal offseason, something he hasn't had really since after his summer debut in 2014. Before the injury, Howard lost his feel for the strike zone and was shut down as a result. He's only thrown 91 2/3 innings in his entire pro career, so just having him back on the mound now is victory enough, though Graupe sees other success stories from guys who had similar struggles.
"Alex Wimmers in Minnesota went through the same stuff and surfaced in the big leagues," Graupe said of the Twins' 2010 first-round pick who completely lost the strike zone early in his career, but managed to fight his way up to Minnesota in 2016 and 2017. "Guys are able to come back."
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLBPipeline.com. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanMayo and Facebook, and listen to him on the weekly Pipeline Podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.