Earlier this week, we made the case for the Cleveland Indians to sign Brandon McCarthy and Melky Cabrera in the upcoming offseason. Today we turn to the bullpen as we eye an impending free agent who could help the Tribe’s relief corps in setting up matchups: Tampa Bay Rays left-handed reliever J.P. Howell.
James Phillip Howell was drafted in the first round of the 2004 MLB Draft by the Kansas City Royals. He made only 24 appearances (22 starts) in the minors after being drafted out of the University of Texas before arriving in Kansas City in 2005, compiling an 11-3 record, a 2.82 ERA, and a 138:50 K:BB in 127.2 innings.
Once in K.C., Howell struggled in 15 starts for the Royals to the tune of a 6.19 ERA over 72.2 innings. Howell was rewarded by being sent to Triple-A for the start of the 2006 season before being traded to the then-Devil Rays for Fernando Cortez and Joey Gathright. He spent some additional time in Triple-A for the Rays in 2006 and 2007 while also starting 18 games at the major league level, going just 2-9 with a 6.46 ERA in 93.1 innings.
In 2008, the Rays moved Howell to the bullpen and he experienced a revival. He has appeared in 227 games out of the ‘pen since the start of the 2008 season, totalling 233.1 innings and a 3.05 ERA—and that’s counting his pretty disastrous 2011 season when he had an ugly 6.16 ERA in 30.2 innings. (Howell had shoulder surgery May 19, 2010, in which his labrum was repaired and he spent a total of 260 days on the disabled list. His return from the injury could have been the cause for his struggles.) He has rebounded nicely this season, with a 2.89 ERA in 46.2 innings.
As a relief pitcher over his career, Howell has allowed just a .206/.307/.327 slash and is solid against both right-handed (.247 BAA) and left-handed (.239 BAA) hitters. According to FanGraphs, Howell’s average fastball velocity (87.1) is the highest of his career.
Howell will turn 30 years old in April of 2013, so he’s not very old. He’s making just $1.35 million in 2012 with the Rays and he has experience as a closer in his career, having compiled 21 saves.
So how does he fit into the Indians’ needs? Tony Sipp has the primary left-hander in the Tribe bullpen in 2012. If the Indians offer him arbitration, he could get a raise from the $505,000 that he earned this year even after posting an ERA near five for most of the season. Chris Seddon (3.97 ERA in 11.1 innings in relief) can fill the left-hander-who-gets-beat-up role for the Indians if they non-tender Sipp, opening the door for a useful left-handed reliever in Howell.
Howell’s success out of the bullpen for the Rays is obvious from his numbers. He has dealt with pressure situations in his career as a closer and pitching in the tough American League East, so he could fill the closer role if the club were to move Chris Perez and his arbitration-inflating contract in coming years.
Howell could certainly command money similar to Sean Marshall (three-years, $16.5 million) or Jeremy Affeldt (three-years, $14 million) on the open market. Approximately $5 million per season sounds like a lot for a small-market team to spend on a reliever, but he’d earn his keep by shutting down the Joe Mauers, Prince Fielders, and Adam Dunns of the AL Central, while also lessening the load on bullpen staples Vinnie Pestano and Joe Smith in close games.
While it is questionable as to whether a small-market club can dish out $5 million per year on a setup man, we’ve already sen the Indians take the alternative route and waste innings on the likes of Jairo Asencio, Dan Wheeler, and Jeremy Accardo. Signing Howell to a three-year, $15 million deal would be a good move if ownership is willing to open up their wallets.