Jays Sign Left-Handed Reliever J.P. Howell to a One-Year Deal

J.P. Howell
Whoooooaaaa, did the Blue Jays just sign me, brah? Photo Credit: Gary A. Vazquez-USA TODAY Sports

You haven’t heard J.P. Howell’s name this winter nearly as much as your probably have Boone Logan’s or Jerry Blevins’s or… a bunch of other nondescript left-handed relievers’ names. But you probably should have, because as nondescript lefty relievers go, he’s certainly one of them.

Now he’s the Blue Jays’ nondescript lefty reliever, as Buster Olney tweeted tonight that the club has signed him to a one-year contract! And it is, in fact, a major league deal.

Funny how the front office isn’t quite so completely derelict in their duty sometimes, isn’t it? And while the only lefty relief that should be on anyone’s mind right now is bringing refreshments to those on the front lines of protest — HEYO! — let’s see what we got and then (I assume) have me tell you to piss off for whining that it’s not Nondescript Lefty Reliever B, C, or F, shall we?

Howell was a first round pick of the Royals in 2004, and made his big league debut just a year later. He started fifteen times for Kansas City in 2005, but didn’t make the club out of Spring Training 2006 and was dealt that June to the Rays for Joey Gathright and Fernando Cortez. He didn’t last long as a starter there, but was a key high leverage reliever for the Rays when they made their run to the World Series in 2008 — he was tagged with the loss in the deciding Game Five against the Phillies. He lost his 2010 season to a torn labrum, though, and hasn’t been nearly the same since.

Not the same but not ineffective either. Especially against left-handers.

Howell spent the last four seasons with the Dodgers, playing in 2016 on a $6.25 million club option that the team picked up last winter. At that point he had posted three straight sub-2.40 ERA marks, though that number bloated to 4.09 in 2016. But his peripherals, save for some bad luck with the home run and his strand rate, look mighty stable. FIP, xFIP, the high ground ball rate, decent strikeout and walk rates — all were in line with the three years previous. His velocity was down a couple ticks to 85.3 in 2016, but he’s always worked in about around that range, so that number isn’t as alarming as it might sound.

Perhaps because of the velocity dip he relied more than ever on his curve, and maybe that was the root of his ERA problems? I don’t know. I’m just looking at his FanGraphs page, trying to see what I can see. 

And what I can see about the previous three seasons look more than alright. Lefty hitters put up just a .181/.265/.226 slash line against him in 320 plate appearances from 2013 through 2015, which led to him having a tidy 2.02 ERA in the split. And he’s generally been alright against right-handers, too.

We can’t discount his 2016 season entirely, but it was smoother for longer than his numbers imply. Blow-ups for four and two runs apiece in the Dodgers’ first series of the season bloated his ERA. For four months from the end of that series until an ugly stretch in mid-August he posted a 1.89 ERA, allowing 27 hits and 14 walks over 38 innings, with 31 strikeouts.

Granted, those are some seriously arbitrary endpoints. But the point is: this is a guy who should be able to get left-handers out a whole bunch for the Jays, even if he’s obviously not going to be especially spectacular doing so. 

It will do. We’ll take it.

Meanwhile: Ken Rosenthal tweets that the deal is believed to be in the $3 million range, and that the club is sill looking for a right-handed reliever at about the same price.

Yep. That works.