I’ve been wondering openly for weeks now what the Cubs’ plan was in the bullpen with respect to their paucity of lefties. Right now, it’s James Russell and … uh … Travis Wood, if the Cubs sign another starter? Chris Rusin? Brooks Raley? The Cubs DFA’d Jeff Beliveau last week, so it probably won’t be him.
In short: they need another lefty arm, preferably a quality late-inning option (of course, isn’t that always the preference?).
One such option I’d mentioned in the past is J.P. Howell, and it sounds like the Cubs do indeed have some interest. Nats beat writer Bill Ladson reports that the Cubs, together with the Nationals, Phillies, Mariners, and Rangers, are pursuing the lefty. Ladson doesn’t expect a decision to come before Christmas, however.
Howell would be a quality, albeit potentially expensive, option for the Cubs.
He’s just 29, put up a 3.04 ERA and 1.212 WHIP over 50.1 innings in 2012 for the Rays, and has a 136 career ERA+ and 2.13 K/BB ratio as a reliever.
Howell isn’t free from some concerns, however – he underwent shoulder surgery in 2010 (labrum), and didn’t fully rebound until 2012. Even then, his 2012 season was far less dominant than he’d been in his pre-surgery days.
Howell is more effective against lefties than righties, but he’s better than a mere LOOGY. Pairing him with James Russell as lefties in the pen would give Dale Sveum a great many options later in the game, particularly if Russell is viewed more as a traditional setup guy than as a match-up guy.
Bidding on Howell falls into the same vein as the Cubs’ failed bids on Mike Adams and Jason Grilli, though Howell’s age potentially makes him more likely to stick around as a longer term piece than as a short-term flip candidate. The Cubs clearly would like to improve the bullpen for 2013, even thought they may not believe it is going to be a competitive year. They can try, see what happens, and move Howell if the team isn’t surprising to the upside. Quality relievers on relatively short-term contracts are among the easiest pieces to move. And, setting aside the possibility of a flip, there remains the argument that the Cubs are looking ahead to 2014 as a possible target for competitiveness. Having someone like Howell locked into the bullpen at that point would help.