LOS ANGELES -- It has been a trying season for the Dodgers bullpen, filled with shaky performances after a strong start to 2015. But left-hander J.P. Howell has been one of the most reliable, trusted options in the 'pen, and figures to cash in this offseason one way or another.
Howell on Saturday pitched to one batter, striking out the left-handed Kyle Schwarber to end the seventh inning. It was the 51st appearance of the season for Howell. His next game will trigger a contract clause in his favor.
Howell signed a two-year, $11.25 million contract with the Dodgers prior to 2014 that included a $6.25 million mutual option for 2016, with a $250,000 buyout. But with 120 games pitched in 2014-2015 combined, and as long as Howell doesn't end the season on the disabled list, that mutual option will become a player option, meaning only Howell needs to exercise the option to return in 2015.
"It's nice. It's an incentive," Howell said last week. "It's fun to chase that."
Howell, 32, is no stranger to free agency. He was a free agent after 2012 with the Rays, and signed a one-year deal with the Dodgers. Then, he went through the process again after 2013 before returning to Los Angeles on that two-year deal.
With a potential payday looming again this offseason, Howell does his best to keep a singular focus.
"You try to block that out. That's why guys like security, and they push for longer-term deals. Some guys fare better with that pressure. I enjoy it, but I don't. It's the biggest rush, but you feel vulnerable," Howell said. "You just try to finish strong, play the game and eliminate those distractions.
"It can get away from you. You're not focused on the right things. For me, the first time going through free agency I said, 'I don't ever want to go through that again.' It was that tough for me."
Howell has a 1.46 ERA this season in his 51 games, with 33 strikeouts and 12 walks in his 37 innings. His ground ball rate (59.3 percent) and walk rate (7.3 percent) are career bests, and his peripheral numbers (3.17 FIP, 3.60 xFIP, 3.22 SIERA) are all in line with his three years as a Dodger.
Opposing batters are hitting .268/.329/.329 against Howell this season, and .211/.293/.278 in his three years in Los Angeles. Left-handed batters during that time have hit just .182/.267/.227 against Howell, and this season have no extra-base hits in 81 plate appearances.
As he has matured, Howell said he has gotten better at avoiding distractions while on the mound.
"That's the trick. What happens is it speeds up and you get away from thinking one pitch at a time. You're thinking 'two weeks ago, this happened' or 'This is messed up'," Howell said. "That has to be eliminated."
While $6.25 million might be a hefty salary for a non-closing relief pitcher, it's no lock that Howell will exercise his player option. Just two years ago he got $11.25 million over two years, and in that same market fellow lefty Boone Logan inked a three-year, $16.5 million deal with the Rockies.
Last offseason, Pat Neshek signed a two-year deal plus an option with the Astros with $12.5 million guaranteed, and Luke Hochevar got a two-year deal plus an option worth a total guarantee of $10 million from the Royals despite missing all of 2014.
In short, the money is there for strong middle relief. Not that it is the only motivation.
"If you have money or you don't have money, the job is still the same. When you get money, it doesn't really bring a nice ease," Howell said. "I still feel like I need a World Series ring. You think that needing a contract adds pressure, but it really doesn't. You're going to have pressure either way."