Blue Jays fill out 'pen with reported Howell deal

Analysis shows lefty's apparent down year in 2016 may not have been outlier

Blue Jays fill out 'pen with reported Howell deal

TORONTO -- The Blue Jays' 25-man roster is starting to take shape following the reported signing of left-hander J.P. Howell to a one-year deal.

Howell is expected to fill Toronto's most glaring need, which was an experienced left-handed reliever to be used in high-leverage situations. Following the departure of Brett Cecil earlier this offseason, a replacement had to be found, and Howell appears to be the guy.

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Some Blue Jays fans will be familiar with Howell after his six-season stint with Tampa Bay, but that ended more than four years ago, and a lot has changed since then. Here's a closer look at what happened with Los Angeles and how Howell fits into Toronto's 'pen:

Breaking down 2016
Howell posted ERAs of 2.39 or below from 2013-15, but the number jumped to 4.09 last season. A slight drop in velocity could have been one factor, as his sinker averaged 87.63 mph in '16 compared to 85.92 in '15. Another reason was Howell's performance against lefties, who had a .760 OPS last season compared to .702 for righties. Those reverse splits would be cause for concern, but they're sit in stark contrast to the .518 OPS lefties put up in '15 and his career mark of .624.

Howell escapes the jam

Beyond the obvious, there are some signs for optimism, because 2016 might not have been quite as different as it seems. Howell's strikeouts remained relatively similar (7.82 per nine innings in '16 vs. 7.98 in '15) and the small discrepancy was offset by a similar dip in walks (2.66 in 2016 vs. 2.86 in 2015). Howell's FIP (fielding independent pitching) also held steady, with 3.50 in '16 compared to 3.34 in '15.

Durability
One of Howell's biggest assets is his ability to stay healthy despite a relatively heavy workload. He made at least 64 appearances each season from 2013-15, and he has not been on the disabled list since '11. Howell typically has been used as a lefty specialist -- he threw more than 25 pitches just four times last season -- but his ability to pitch on back-to-back days will be key in a setup role.

Howell made 15 appearances on no days' rest in 2016, limiting the opposition to a .675 OPS in those outings. That was better than his performance on one and two days' rest, and those numbers fall in line with his career norms. Over 11 seasons, opponents have a .598 OPS when Howell is pitching on back-to-back days, which is the lowest OPS allowed in the veteran's splits.

Howell, Ellis turn two

Replacing Cecil
Howell will face the tall task of replacing Cecil in the bullpen. Considering the roles, it's natural to compare the two lefties, but doing so is also probably not fair. There's a reason Cecil was able to secure more than $30 million from the Cardinals, while Howell will reportedly earn one-tenth of that amount, according to FOX's Ken Rosenthal. Cecil, while often underappreciated, has been one of the top relievers in baseball for quite awhile.

The biggest difference between these two is how they get outs. From 2013-16, Cecil averaged 11.46 strikeouts per nine innings and got 50.2 percent of his outs on the ground, compared to 8.10 strikeouts and a ground-ball rate of 58.5 for Howell. Cecil also holds the edge on FIP (2.74 vs 3.24), but it's Howell who actually has the advantage in ERA (2.54 vs. 2.90). According to FanGraphs, Cecil posted 3.9 WAR during those seasons, while Howell recorded 1.8.

Howell ends frame with DP

American League East
It's been awhile, but Howell is familiar with the AL East after pitching with the Rays from 2006-12. A lot of the hitters have changed, but the ballparks have remained the same since '12, and his second-best numbers within the division are at Rogers Centre, with a 3.00 ERA over 30 innings. Howell's best numbers are in Baltimore (2.73 ERA over 20 appearances), and he has a 3.51 ERA at Tropicana Field. The stats aren't as kind in Boston or New York, with a 15.12 ERA over 10 appearances at Fenway Park and a 5.40 ERA over 11 appearances at the new Yankee Stadium.

Howell escapes trouble

Rounding out the 'pen
Toronto might not be done adding, but we're starting to get a clearer picture of how the bullpen will look this season. Roberto Osuna, Jason Grilli, Joe Biagini and Howell figure to eat up the high-leverage innings, while righty Mike Bolsinger is out of options and should be considered an early favorite for long relief.

That leaves two spots from a group that includes Gavin Floyd, Aaron Loup, Rule 5 Draft pick Glenn Sparkman, Danny Barnes, Ryan Tepera, Chris Smith, Matt Dermody and several others. Going with someone like Loup would give John Gibbons the luxury of a second lefty, but Loup has struggled during each of the past two seasons and likely will need a strong camp to make the team.

Gregor Chisholm has covered the Blue Jays for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @gregorMLB and Facebook, and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.