J.P. Howell is a part of the Dodgers' bullpen for a fourth season in 2016, thanks to a decision made by the left-hander in November to exercise his player option to return to Los Angeles for one more year. But as the hot stove continues to produce lucrative contract after lucrative contract for middle relief pitchers, it is becoming more and more clear that Howell left quite a bit on the table to stay with the Dodgers.
Don't get me wrong; nobody is crying poor for Howell, who made $11 million total in 2014-2015, and will be paid another $6.25 million in 2016.
He has earned those salaries and then some in his three years in Los Angeles. Howell from 2013-2015 has a 1.97 ERA, ranking eighth among relief pitchers with at least 150 innings during that span, a 3.14 FIP, and has held left-handed batters to just .185/.265/.226 during that span.
Howell is also one of just 16 pitchers to throw in at least 65 games in each of the last three seasons, proving to be quite durable.
When Howell exercised his option to return, we looked at other recent contracts for relief pitchers who weren't closers — Howell has 22 career saves, but 17 of those came in 2009; his role is setting up and middle relief — and two pitchers last offseason cracked the $6 million mark in average annual value on multi-year contracts, Pat Neshek (two years, $12.5 million) and Luke Gregerson (three, $18.5 million), both with Houston.
"I know he loves it in LA. He and his wife are really happy," Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said of Howell in November. "He's really happy with the team and likes the direction."
On Wednesday night, reliever Antonio Bastardo reportedly agreed to terms with the Mets on a two-year deal worth $12 million. It was just the latest example of middle relievers getting paid this offseason:
Dec. 6: Ryan Madson, A's, 3/$22m
Dec. 9: John Axford, A's, 2/$10m
Jan. 20: Bastardo, Mets, 2/$12m
That makes four multi-year reliever deals this winter at at least $6 million per season, and five more at at least $5 million per year, with a few relief pitchers (Tyler Clippard springs to mind) still on the market.
It might be cheating above including recent-ish closers Madson, Axford and Cishek, but all three have been in and out of the role enough in recent years that they don't automatically carry the magic capital C at all times. The point is there was money to be had on the open market this offseason for relief pitchers, and Howell passed that up to remain with the Dodgers.