DUNEDIN, FLA.—When Blue Jays left-hander Brett Cecil departed as a free agent to the Cardinals, it was about that time another veteran free-agent lefty, J.P. Howell, turned his attention north of the border and began to consider Toronto.
Whereas Cecil’s terms were four years and $31 million, the 33-year-old Howell quickly agreed to a one-year, $3-million deal to be the Jays’ go-to left-hander.
In this day and age of the seven- and eight-man bullpen, there are most often two situational left-handers and the departure of Cecil left room at the top for someone else to lead. The incumbent No. 2 lefty reliever is Aaron Loup, with six other youngsters or veteran long shots in the mix. It remains to be seen.
Howell — whose last contract had been a lucrative three-year, $17.25-million deal with the Dodgers — chose the Jays not for the money but the chance to win.
“I was looking at teams that obviously needed a lefty,” Howell said. “At the same time I needed somewhere I would fit in, my style. I’ve been in L.A., which is great, and Tampa. I was looking for a fit . . . It wasn’t about the money. It wasn’t about any of that this go-around. For me, it was where do I want to play and think I can have the most fun — and win.”
It used to be that any young pitcher with great stuff who started out in a major-league bullpen had aspirations of transitioning to the starting rotation. Some even suggested that scenario post-2015 with Jays closer Roberto Osuna. But this past winter continued a trend wherein relief pitchers are being respected and rewarded with lucrative multi-year contracts. Howell’s Dodgers deal was an early part of the trend.
“You can make a living on this, for sure,” Howell said. “It’s more motivation. Guys are willing to pitch out of roles. Whenever it was where guys weren’t making as much, they wanted to stick to a (significant) role and get that label as a setup man or a closer. Now it’s, hey, if you can do all of them that’s even better. If you can close, setup and be a long man or something, it’s really attractive these days.”
One of the aspects of the Blue Jays bullpen that Howell finds extremely attractive is the mixture of veterans — including Jason Grilli and Joe Smith — and youngsters such as Osuna. In his first year in the bullpen — 2008 with the Rays, after four seasons as a starter — Tampa Bay went to the World Series. It seemed every season after that, Rays manager Joe Maddon was able to cobble together highly effective bullpens with different names but similar job descriptions. Howell sees that here.
“I love it,” he said. “We’re just down there, we’re talking, we’ve got a good mix with the age. You get to hear guys with different attitudes. You’ve got Osuna, who’s so young (22), so vibrant and ready to go. That helps the old guys out, when we see him on his toes walking around. He gets me fired up in the morning and it helps, man. And for him, we can help keep him calm as the season goes.”
One aspect about Howell that the Jays value is that he has six years of experience pitching in the uber-tough AL East. He knows the pressure. He knows the ballparks. He knows the cities. He believes he thrives on the competition.
“There’s a lot of history, a lot of tradition,” the Modesto, Calif. native said. “The fans are different. I’m from the West Coast, born and raised. It’s such a different vibe. They’re on top of you. They know baseball. I’m not saying they don’t on the West Coast, but it’s more of a show to them, or at least where I was. It’s cool.
“The AL East is so intense. All season long it’s usually a close race, so there’s usually no letup. The crowd plays a huge factor when you’re tired or struggling, in all aspects, really. But when you need it, they’re there. You can get something out of it and it can break some guys down, too.”
Howell gets a kick out of assessing and addressing the unique ballpark environments in the AL East, where he knows the fans can be intimidating. He views them with a mixture of amusement and appreciation for their debating skills.
“New York, it’s to see who can be the funniest,” Howell said, “who can be the wittiest. You kind of appreciate their insults. It’s pretty intelligent stuff, creative and old-school. You hear some old-school sayings.
“For sure, Boston’s kind of on you — the whole town. They’re more making fun of you for something. Bringing up bad memories. They’re bringing up the past. You go to Baltimore, it’s a little different there. The way the bullpen’s set up is easy to take. Tampa seemed easy. I only played there as a visitor once.
“Then you have Toronto. Man! To me, by far, that was the toughest one. Toronto fans are good at Google. They get personal. They’re on top of you. Any time you go out there to stretch, they’re on you. You almost want to stretch underneath and hide. That’s how I felt when I was there. Now I’m on the home side. I get to go out there and give them love back, so I’m excited about it.”
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