J.P. Howell, left-handed reliever targeted by Nationals, heads to the Dodgers

Jonathan Newton/WP

Jonathan Newton/WP

With news late Friday that their top target, J.P. Howell, has agreed to terms on a one-year deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Nationals have lost out on yet another left-handed reliever to round out the bullpen.

The Nationals had honed in on Howell, 29, who punched up a 3.04 ERA with the Tampa Bay Rays last season, as their preferred choice to replace left-handed reliever Sean Burnett, who left via free agency to the Los Angeles Angels. Nationals evaluators and Manager Davey Johnson liked Howell, his unconventional fastball and his ability to retire both right- and left-handed hitters.

Howell’s agreement with the Dodgers was first reported by the Los Angeles Times, and the lefty is set to make $2.85 million plus $1.2 million in performance bonuses, according to a CBS Sports report, so he could make as much as $4 million. Howell, who pitched for Johnson in the 2009 World Baseball Classic, had said earlier this winter that he would interested in the Nationals and liked how they played under Johnson.

Howell is the fourth left-handed reliever the Nationals are known to have pursued but failed to sign. It’s free agency and teams talk to several players at once to keep their options open but the Nationals were interested, if the deal was right, in Michael Gonzalez, Tom Gorzelanny, Burnett and Howell.

Gonzalez (reported one-year deal worth $2.25 million with incentives) and Gorzelanny (reported deal for two years and $6 million) both agreed to deals with the Milwaukee Brewers. But the market for left-handed relievers this winter is robust, and the Nationals haven’t seemed inclined to pay as much as other teams. 

Johnson has said his preference would be to add a second left-hander to the Nationals bullpen, but he and General Manager Mike Rizzo are confident that the team’s right-handed relievers and lone major league left-hander should be capable of getting left-handed batters out next season.

Right-handers such as Tyler Clippard and Ryan Mattheus have been particularly effective against left-handed hitters; Clippard has held them to a .186 average in his career and they hit .214 off Mattheus. The Nationals re-signed left-hander Zach Duke to a one-year deal, and they also signed two other left-handers, former National Bill Bray and Fernando Abad, to minor league deals with invitations to major league camp. The Nationals are keen on players that able to get both left-handers and right-handers out because a situational left-handed reliever offers only limited opportunities.

The Nationals could hold pat and head to spring training with their bullpen composed as is. They lose three proven left-handers but aren’t locked into deals in a market that is paying relievers lucratively. 

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