After putting up a fantastic line in last night’s shutout victory over the Rays, the speculation has only increased about what the Jays ought to do with free-agent-to-be Carlos Villanueva. The right-hander continued a fantastic run of now eleven straight starts, in which he’s posted a 3.53 xFIP, and 65 strikeouts to 17 walks over 65.1 innings, leading a whole lot of folks to wonder if the Jays might have a ready-made mid-rotation starter sitting right under their noses.
Yet there remain a number of reasons to suggest that maybe he isn’t, and the club is running out of time to make a crucial decision on him, especially since Villanueva, despite spending most of his career as a reliever or a swingman type, quite rightly wants to be paid like a starter.
In and of itself that wouldn’t be so bad, so long as the club could absorb the financial hit and not have to guarantee Villanueva a rotation spot– and such an idea isn’t entirely far fetched. But if Villanueva balks at being cast as mere insurance for the club in case they come up short in pursuit of two arms this winter, or the possibility of battling JA Happ for a rotation spot next spring, I’m still not entirely convinced the club should give him the kind of multi-year deal that they’ve said assures Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow of their places in next year’s rotation.
It’s undeniable how good a job Villanueva has done when pressed into a starting role this season, but as ready as we are to start hoping the Jays hand him a pile of money, we need to keep in mind that we’re only talking about 11 starts, and fewer than a hundred innings in total on the year. That’s a pretty light workload for a guy pegged to be a full-time starter, especially considering his recent injury history. He suffered a mysterious circulation problem that sent him to hospital in spring training, after he woke up feeling a cold sensation in his right hand the day following a bullpen session, and trainers couldn’t get a blood pressure reading. Prior to that, he missed most of last August with a right forearm strain.
According to Baseball Prospectus, his injury history before 2011 is remarkably clean, yet that may partly be a function of the fact that his career high in innings pitched as a pro is 181.1, and that was back in his rookie year of 2006, where the bulk of his work was split between Huntsville and Nashville in the Brewers’ system.
That said, this year’s great run isn’t entirely an anomaly. Villanueva pitched to a 3.67 ERA, holding opponents to a .648 OPS in nine starts in 2011, before things started to go off the rails, ultimately leading to his DL stint with the forearm strain– about which he later admitted that there were nights before he would start he was unsure if he would be healthy enough to pitch.
Because of that, we could give him a mulligan on his final four pre-DL starts of 2011, in which he pitched to a 9.31 ERA, but… I don’t know. It sure as shit doesn’t seem reasonable to judge his readiness to succeed in the 2013 rotation based on nine and eleven very good starts, with four awful ones, a DL trip, a return to the bullpen, a circulation issue, and another half season in the bullpen between them.
Yet, even if we’re gung-ho to see that glass half full, another, perhaps bigger issue still needs to be addressed: the fact that Villanueva’s stuff just isn’t overly impressive. I think RJ Anderson of the Rays blog Process Report kinda hit the nail on the head after last night’s game, lamenting that “few things in baseball are more annoying than watching a pitcher shut the Rays down by throwing soft stuff up in the zone.”
“The more the game progressed, the less likely Rays were to see a fastball—a smart and necessary strategy on Villanueva’s part,” he continues. “If only Villanueva had located his changeup down in the zone, the loss would be easier to accept. As it is, you can’t help but wonder how he got away with it.”
Add in the fact that our man on the ground, Mr. Drew Fairservice, has it on authority that the Rays didn’t get to their hotel until five in the morning on Thursday, and that they barely conducted a batting practice before the game, and maybe we start to see why Villanueva was able to have so much success in his outing. I don’t want to take too much away from him, because, as Anderson points out, his strategy with pitch selection and his ability to throw off-speed stuff for strikes were both absolutely key, and it’s not like he hasn’t succeeded many times before last night, but maybe it gives us pause?
Maybe it helps us remember what we probably rightly thought Villanueva was before his two excellent stretches as a this season and last– and that’s certainly no worthless asset, but a guy you commit to as a starter? Not without being resoundingly clear to him that the club’s goal is to add two more guys who are better than he is.
The money shouldn’t be a problem, at least in theory for the Rogers-backed club– the cost, and therefore the risk, is still plenty low, and he’s shown that a tremendous upside exists, if he can keep up what he’s been doing in a starting role– but if Villanueva is unwilling to accept a deal on those terms, or the Jays are unwilling to break a promise to him, should something better comes along later in the winter, I just can’t believe that locking the club into him– and presumably also JA Happ– amounts to a winning strategy.
But are those terms really so untenable? That, it would seem, is what they call the rub. If they’re able to retain him while not committing entirely to giving him a rotation spot, there’s absolutely no reason not to get him extended.