The Blue Jays should consider free agent LH reliever JP Howell for the bullpen
A lefty reliever. It’s been near the top of the Blue Jays’ wish list since Day 1 of free agency. Since then, the best options have been snatched up in a series of extravagantly expensive pacts.
One, of course, was lured away from the confines of Rogers Centre to St. Louis. Brett Cecil had been an underappreciated commodity for several years out of Toronto’s ‘pen and now his absence is acutely conspicuous. How do you replace a guy who posted a 2.90 ERA, 2.73 FIP and 11.3 K/9 over the past four years? Well, aside from shelling out the GDP of small country for Aroldis Chapman, you don’t.
The Jays would be extremely unwise to rely on Aaron Loup (or someone similar) as their primary lefty. Barring a clever trade, the Jays must dip their toes into the inflated reliever market.
Buying a free agent reliever, let alone a lefty, has been something the Jays have avoided like the plague. You have to go back to 2012 to find the last time Toronto made a significant reliever signing (Darren Oliver and Francisco Cordero). It’s time for another one this offseason.
So, out of the experienced, Major League options who should they pick? Jerry Blevins, Chris Capuano, Charlie Furbush, J.P. Howell, Boone Logan, Javier Lopez and Travis Wood remain on the board. Capuano is not an improvement over Loup, Lopez struggled in an extremely sheltered role and Furbush didn’t play last year. Logan, Blevins and Wood are all fine options but all have many teams interested—they won’t go cheap. One name has flown under the radar: J.P Howell.
Though Howell has a better ERA (2.81), by far, as a reliever over his career than any of the other remaining options, he’s rarely mentioned in lefty reliever rumours. This may be because he’s a junkballer (throwing 85-86 MPH) and due to his down 2016. Cecil and Howell’s 2016s were quite similar: 3.93 ERA, 3.64 FIP for Brett and 4.09 ERA, 3.50 FIP for Howell.
In 2015, Howell was miles better with a sterling 1.43 ERA. Howell should enjoy some progression next season with his FIP remaining steady and the fact that he had to deal with a .338 BABIP in 2016.
Howell’s usage is more sheltered than Cecil but he’s not a pure LOOGY. He still faces more righties than lefties. He’s an extreme ground ball pitcher (59.1 GB% in 2016) which would jive well with the Rogers Centre and Toronto’s solid infield defence.
From a WAR perspective, Howell’s 1.8 fWAR over the past three season is more than Logan and Wood while Blevins has just 0.1 fWAR more over that span. Elsewhere, bWAR views Howell more favourably with a 3 bWAR which handily bests Wood, Logan and Blevins (1.1bWAR).
Best of all, Howell is said to be looking for a one year deal. Even if he signs for as much as $6m, it might only be for one year, avoiding the risks of committing more guaranteed money and keeping the future more flexible. Management would be more willing to bite that kind of bullet.
He won’t score the type of deals that others in his cohort probably will but he’ll likely perform just as well, if not better. Of course, Howell might have other preferences beyond cash, but this is the kind of shrewd deal the Blue Jays should be pursuing.
Just as Kendrys Morales is a sort of “Encarnacion-lite,” think of Howell as “Cecil-lite.” He’s not a world beater and won’t be stopping teams in their tracks like fellow lefty Andrew Miller, but he’s the best fit of what’s around and the Jays need someone competent to fill the role.