J.P. Howell’s Toronto tenure may not be remembered for his on-the-field performance, but for the lesson learned afterwards by the Blue Jays front office.
When the Toronto Blue Jays announced the dual signings of Joe Smith and J.P. Howell on Feb. 9, 2017, there were a lot of heads nodding among the fans of the club. Everyone agreed that the two veterans would provide solid bullpen fortifications at a very reasonable price. They would help buttress the younger arms and lead the Blue Jays to the postseason for the third-straight season. Parade routes were planned.
Needless to say, that season did not go as well as hoped.
Smith played his part well. Signed to be a veteran arm in the late innings, the Ohio native delivered to the point of exhaustion in 2017. Smith pitched in 52% of the team’s games in the first two and a half months before hitting the DL with shoulder inflammation. He was traded to Cleveland for Thomas Pannone, who will miss some time of his own this season, and Samad Taylor. A respectable haul for a respectable amount of work.
Howell also had shoulder inflammation in 2017. His turned out to be more of an issue for the Blue Jays.
The 33-year-old Californian was signed to be the veteran LOOGY (left-handed one-out guy) for Toronto to take some of the burden off Aaron Loup. Howell was unable to accomplish such a task. He hit the DL twice with shoulder issues, and when he was on the mound, Howell usually left with a whimper. After 11 innings pitched in four months and nothing but a 7.36 ERA to show for it, the former Dodger was designated for assignment on August 16 and released. That was that.
So why is Howell still relevant when talking about the 2018 Toronto Blue Jays?
Because the Blue Jays front office learned a valuable lesson when it came to relief pitching from the J.P. Howell experiment: Don’t pay for mediocre relief pitching, especially not at $3 million.
Now granted, other contracts on the roster would preclude the Blue Jays from spending heavily on bullpen fortifications (does AA want Tulo in Atlanta now?). However, the fact the remains that over the past few seasons, giving big contracts to free agent bullpen arms does not work out for the signing team.
To prove this, let’s take a look at that $3M benchmark that Toronto set last season in paying Howell and Smith. Here at Jays From the Couch, we have regularly pegged the Blue Jays’ valuation of 1.0 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) at roughly $9M. This means that Howell and Smith would have each needed to provide at least 0.3 WAR to justify their contract, and 1.0 would be a great return of “surplus value”, a term Mark Shapiro used in the interview he gave in the Jays From the Couch 2018 Guide to the Toronto Blue Jays (available on Amazon!). According to Fangraphs’ WAR calculations, only one of the two did that.
|Contract (Years, Cost)||2017 WAR (Total)||Projected Value||Value Generated|
|Joe Smith||1 yr, $3M||1.8 WAR||$16.2M||$13.2M|
|J.P. Howell||1 yr, $3M||-0.2 WAR||-$1.8M||-$4.8M|
Smith generated a ton of surplus value with his bounce-back performance last season, while Howell essentially owed the team money for the way he pitched. The lefty was not alone in being in debt to his new employers, either. Going back over the last five seasons of reliever classes reveals a surprising number of players who did not offer a great return of investment. Of the 83 contracts worth $3M per season or more handed to relief pitchers since the start of 2013, only 25 contracts ended up being a positive investment for the team or teams paying the cost, including Smith’s last season. The table below illustrates this, using Fangraphs’ WAR value and Spotrac’s contract details (If the contract is still active, surplus value is based on money paid through the 2017 season):
|Pitcher||Prior Team||New Team(s)||Contract (#Years, $$$, Year Signed)||Total WAR provided (As of 2018)||Value of War Provided (in $millions)||Net Value (in $millions)|
|Rafael Soriano||NYY||WAS||2yr, $28M (2013)||1.3||11.7||-16.3|
|Jonathan Broxton||CIN||CIN, MIL, STL||3yr, $21M (2013)||0.6||5.4||-16.6|
|Jeremy Affeldt||SF||SF||3yr, $18M (2013)||-0.8||-7.2||-25.2|
|Mike Adams||TEX||PHI||2yr, $12M (2013)||0.1||0.9||-11.1|
|Mariano Rivera||NYY||NYY||1yr, $10M (2013)||1.5||13.5||3.5|
|Sean Burnett||WAS||LAA||2yr, $8M (2013)||-0.1||-0.9||-8.9|
|Joakim Soria||KC||TEX, DET||2yr, $8M (2013)||1.6||14.4||6.4|
|Jason Grilli||PIT||PIT, LAA||2yr, $6.75M (2013)||2.0||18.0||11.25|
|Joel Peralta||TB||TB||2yr, $6M (2013)||1.2||10.8||4.8|
|Koji Uehara||TEX||BOS||1yr, $4.25M (2013)||3.1||27.9||23.65|
|Ryan Madson||CIN||LAA||1yr, $3.5M (2013)||0.0||0.0||-3.5|
|Joe Nathan||TEX||DET||2yr, $20M (2014)||0.1||0.9||-19.1|
|Brian Wilson||LAD||LAD||2yr, $19M (2014)||-0.2||-1.8||-20.8|
|Boone Logan||NYY||COL||3yr, $16.5M (2014)||0.7||6.3||-10.2|
|Joe Smith||CLE||LAA, CHC||3yr, $15.75M (2014)||1.6||14.4||-1.35|
|Joaquin Benoit||DET||SD||2yr, $15.5M (2014)||1.6||14.4||-1.1|
|Fernando Rodney||TB||SEA, CHC||2yr, $14M (2014)||0.5||4.5||-9.5|
|Javier Lopez||SF||SF||3yr, $13M (2014)||-0.7||-6.3||-19.3|
|J.P. Howell||LAD||LAD||2yr, $11.25M (2014)||0.7||6.3||-4.95|
|Brad Ziegler||ARI||ARI||2yr, $10.5M (2014)||0.7||6.3||-4.2|
|Edward Mujica||STL||BOS, OAK||2yr, $9.5M (2014)||-0.3||-2.7||-12.2|
|Eric O'Flaherty||ATL||OAK, NYM||2yr, $9.5M (2014)||-0.2||-1.8||-11.3|
|Matt Thornton||BOS||NYY, WAS||2yr, $7M (2014)||1.1||9.9||2.9|
|Chad Qualls||MIA||HOU||2yr, $6M (2014)||0.9||8.1||2.1|
|Scott Downs||ATL||CWS, KC||1yr, $4M (2014)||-0.1||-0.9||-4.9|
|Francisco Rodriguez||BAL||MIL||1yr, $3.25M (2014)||-0.5||-4.5||-8.75|
|Jesse Crain||TB||HOU||1yr, $3.25M (2014)||0.0||0.0||-3.25|
|Ronald Belisario||LAD||CWS||1yr, $3M (2014)||0.4||3.6||0.6|
|David Robertson||NYY||CWS, NYY||4yr, $46M (2015)||4.7||42.3||9.3|
|Andrew Miller||BAL||NYY, CLE||4yr, $36M (2015)||7.3||65.7||38.7|
|Luke Gregerson||OAK||HOU||3yr, $18.5M (2015)||2.4||21.6||3.1|
|Sergio Romo||SF||SF||2yr, $15M (2015)||2.0||18.0||3.0|
|Zach Duke||MIL||CWS, STL||3yr, $15M (2015)||0.7||6.3||-8.7|
|Francisco Rodriguez||MIL||MIL, DET||2yr, $13M (2015)||1.6||14.4||1.4|
|Pat Neshek||STL||HOU||2yr, $12.5M (2015)||0.7||6.3||-6.2|
|Luke Hochevar||KC||KC||2yr, $10M (2015)||0.3||2.7||-7.3|
|Jason Grilli||LAA||ATL, TOR||2yr, $8M (2015)||1.3||11.7||3.7|
|Casey Janssen||TOR||WAS||1yr, $5M (2015)||0.0||0.0||-5.0|
|Jason Motte||STL||CHC||1yr, $4.5M (2015)||0.5||4.5||0.0|
|Matt Belisle||COL||STL||1yr, $3.5M (2015)||0.1||0.9||-2.6|
|Neal Cotts||TEX||MIL, MIN||1yr, $3M (2015)||-0.4||-3.6||-6.6|
|Darren O'Day||BAL||BAL||4yr, $31M (2016)||0.9||8.1||-4.9|
|Joakim Soria||PIT||KC, CWS||3yr, $25M (2016)||1.7||15.3||-0.3|
|Ryan Madson||KC||OAK, WAS||3yr, $22M (2016)||2.3||20.7||5.2|
|Tony Sipp||HOU||HOU||3yr, $18M (2016)||-0.9||-8.1||-20.1|
|Shawn Kelley||SD||WAS||3yr, $15M (2016)||-0.1||-0.9||-10.4|
|Tyler Clippard||NYM||ARI, NYY, CWS, HOU||2yr, $12.25M (2016)||0.8||7.2||-4.25|
|Antonio Bastardo||PIT||NYM, PIT||2yr, $12M (2016)||-0.7||-6.3||-18.3|
|Mark Lowe||TOR||DET||2yr, $11M (2016)||-0.4||-3.6||-14.6|
|Steve Cishek||STL||SEA, TB||2yr, $10M (2016)||1.6||15.4||5.4|
|John Axford||COL||OAK||2yr, $10M (2016)||0.1||0.9||-9.1|
|Jason Motte||CHC||COL||2yr, $10M (2016)||-0.3||-2.7||-12.7|
|Jonathan Broxton||STL||STL||2yr, $7.5M (2016)||0||0.0||-7.5|
|Oliver Perez||HOU||WAS||2yr, $7M (2016)||0.4||3.6||-3.4|
|Chad Qualls||HOU||COL||2yr, $6M (2016)||0.0||0.0||-6.0|
|Joe Blanton||PIT||LAD||1yr, $4M (2016)||0.9||8.1||4.1|
|Jerry Blevins||NYM||NYM||1yr, $4M (2016)||0.7||6.3||2.3|
|Neftali Feliz||DET||PIT||1yr, $3.9M (2016)||-0.1||-0.9||-4.8|
|David Hernandez||ARI||PHI||1yr, $3.9M (2016)||0.2||1.8||-2.1|
|Juan Nicasio||LAD||PIT||1yr, $3M (2016)||1.4||12.6||9.6|
|Yusmeiro Petit||SF||WAS||1yr, $3M (2016)||-0.2||-1.8||-4.8|
|Aroldis Chapman||CHC||NYY||5yr, $86M (2017)||1.6||14.4||-2.8|
|Kenley Jansen||LAD||LAD||5yr, $80M (2017)||3.6||32.4||23.1|
|Mark Melancon||WAS||SF||4yr, $62M (2017)||0.4||3.6||-10.4|
|Brett Cecil||TOR||STL||4yr, $30.5M (2017)||1.1||9.9||2.15|
|Mike Dunn||MIA||COL||3yr, $19M (2017)||0.2||1.8||-2.2|
|Brad Ziegler||BOS||MIA||2yr, $16M (2017)||0.5||4.5||-2.5|
|Junichi Tazawa||BOS||MIA||2yr, $12M (2017)||-0.3||-2.7||-7.7|
|Santiago Casilla||SF||OAK||2yr, $11M (2017)||0.1||0.9||-4.1|
|Daniel Hudson||ARI||PIT||2yr, $11M (2017)||0.1||0.9||-10.1|
|Marc Rzepczynski||WAS||SEA||2yr, $11M (2017)||0.0||0.0||-5.5|
|Joaquin Benoit||TOR||PHI, PIT||1yr, $7.5M (2017)||0.2||1.8||-5.7|
|Greg Holland||KC||COL||1yr, $7M (2017)||1.1||9.9||2.9|
|Jerry Blevins||NYM||NYM||1yr, $6.5M (2017)||1.0||9.0||2.5|
|Boone Logan||COL||CLE||1yr, $6.5M (2017)||0.3||2.7||-3.8|
|Koji Uehara||BOS||CHC||1yr, $6M (2017)||0.6||5.4||-0.6|
|Jesse Chavez||LAD||LAA||1yr, $5.75M (2017)||0.3||2.7||-3.05|
|Neftali Feliz||PIT||MIL, KC||1yr, $5.35M (2017)||-0.6||-5.4||-10.75|
|Joe Blanton||LAD||WAS||1yr, $4M (2017)||-0.3||-2.7||-6.7|
|Sergio Romo||SF||LAD, TB||1yr, $3M (2017)||0.3||2.7||-0.3|
|Joe Smith||CHC||TOR, CLE||1yr, $3M (2017)||1.8||16.2||13.2|
|J.P. Howell||LAD||TOR||1yr, $3M (2017)||-0.2||-1.8||-4.8|
|Drew Storen||SEA||CIN||1yr, $3M (2017)||-0.2||-1.8||-4.8|
Heading into the 2018 offseason, the Blue Jays could have gone in one of two directions following their first dip in the free-agent reliever pool. The first option, AKA the Rockies option, would have been to hurl a boatload of cash at Wade Davis and other top pitchers available in the hopes that the bullpen would be fixed that way. However, such a move would have left the team unable to address its massive depth issues. In addition, the second Davis struggled, the mainstream Toronto media would have been riding his back faster than one can say “B.J. Ryan.”
Instead, the front office took the second option, one that had worked well before. The Blue Jays went looking for pitchers with track records coming off a rough year that would take massive discounts to play and rebuild their value in a major league pen. They had already been successful in trading for those pitchers with the Jason Grilli and Joaquin Benoit deals in the past. Now Toronto was going to extend it to the offseason.
The team was remarkably frugal when building the 2018 bullpen. After closer Roberto Osuna ($5.3M), the next highest-paid reliever on the team is the lone lefty, Aaron Loup, at $1.8M. Only one guaranteed contract was given out, and reliever Seung-Hwan Oh signed for a discounted $1.75M after failing to pass a physical with the Rangers. Instead, the Blue Jays found pitchers willing to come into camp on minor league deals and fight for a chance to stick in the major leagues. The battle royale strategy proved successful as both John Axford and Tyler Clippard have emerged looking like their former selves at a fraction of the cost they commanded on the second table above. The veteran’s minimum of $1.5M should prove a bargain if Axford and Clippard are able to keep their fine spring form going into the summer. This also allows the front office to have the flexibility to add to the team if necessary during the season, be it via trade or free agency.
So far in 2018, results have been good. Axford, Clippard and Oh have provided capable service on the back end of games, allowing Loup and Danny Barnes to stick to lower-pressure situations. Oh in particular has been deployed in multiple different innings, functioning as the man who can let Osuna breathe for a night and not have to come in for every save. The Blue Jays will be carried by their pitching staff this season, but their cap space allows them potentially pick up a needed bat for the stretch drive (maybe a guy like Jordy Mercer or Hunter Pence to cover injuries). The cheap bullpen has put Toronto in a great position for the summer.
For that, J.P. Howell, we thank you.
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