On the lefty relief market and the Nats’ improved pitching depth

Another left-handed reliever that the Nationals were linked to this offseason has landed a multi-year, eight-figure contract.

J.P. Howell has agreed to a two-year deal with the Dodgers worth a guaranteed $11.25 million, with a mutual option for 2016 worth $6.25 million, according to various reports. The option can reportedly vest based on a certain amount of appearances over the two guaranteed years.

Howell’s deal comes after Boone Logan agreed to a three-year, $16.5 million contract with the Rockies over the weekend.

Instead of tossing around that kind of money in order to procure a southpaw for their bullpen, the Nats opted to go the trade route, acquiring Jerry Blevins in a deal with the Athletics during the Winter Meetings.

The Nats might have given up their 2013 minor league player of the year in Billy Burns in that deal, but they now control Blevins for two years, and he’ll likely make somewhere around $4 million through arbitration over those two years combined.

In other words, they’ll get two years of Blevins, whose career numbers are superior to those put up by Howell and Logan, for less than the average annual value for either of the two free agent lefties. Yes, Howell had a dynamite 2013 season and Logan pitched well in the tough American League East. But Blevins has proven that he’s in that class, and the Nats control him at a very reasonable rate through the 2015 season.

Mike Rizzo had to pay a price in terms of a toolsy outfield prospect in the trade with the A’s, but the Nats had a surplus of center field options rising through their minor league ranks. If you ask me, the Blevins deal looks better and better the more we see how the free agent market for lefty relievers is playing out.

I was having a conversation with someone back at the Winter Meetings (those five days in Orlando are such a blur that I honestly can’t remember who), and we started discussing how the Nationals will be much better suited in 2014 than they were last season in one key area - starting pitching depth.

The person I was talking to (sorry, whoever you are) pointed out that entering last season, the Nationals’ No. 6 starter, the guy that was in line to slide into the rotation if anything happened to the top five, was Chris Young.

Young battled injuries last season and posted a 7.88 ERA and 2.000 WHIP in his time at Triple-A Syracuse. No offense to the 34-year-old right-hander, but when the starter you’re looking to as your top insurance policy puts up those type of numbers, it’s never a good thing.

This spring, Young will be back with the Nats on a minor league deal, but he’ll have a bunch more starters around him in camp who now have major league experience under their belts.

Tanner Roark went 7-1 with a 1.51 ERA with the Nats in 2013, including a 1.74 ERA in five big league starts. Taylor Jordan impressed by posting a 3.66 ERA over nine starts in his first taste of the majors.

Ross Ohlendorf got his career back on track by pitching to a 3.28 ERA in 60 1/3 innings with the Nats, working in a number of roles but proving effective when called upon to start. Nathan Karns’ numbers at the major league level might not look too good (7.50 ERA and five homers allowed over three starts), but he got valuable experience and showed he’s knocking on the door of the big leagues.

Those four guys will all compete for the Nats’ No. 5 starting job with Ross Detwiler, who enters camp as the favorite to win the gig.

You then toss in Sammy Solis, Matt Purke and A.J. Cole - three prospects who made strides last season and are a year further along in their development - as well as Young, and the Nats have plenty of arms in the mix.

They’re clearly in a better place when it comes to starting pitching depth entering the spring of 2014 than they were in the spring of this year, and that has to make new manager Matt Williams feel pretty good, knowing he can let these guys duke it out in camp and then have options should a starter falter or go down due to injury.

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