Carlos Villanueva must be part of Jays' 2013 plans | Baseball | CBC Sports

MLBCarlos Villanueva must be part of Jays' 2013 plans

Posted: Wednesday, August 8, 2012 | 06:57 PM

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In six starts as an injury fill-in this season, Blue Jays' Carlos Villanueva has recorded four wins and a 3.19 earned-run average and his July performance (4-0, 1.93 ERA) earned him Blue Jays player of the month honours by the Toronto chapter of the Baseball Writers' Association of America. (Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images) In six starts as an injury fill-in this season, Blue Jays' Carlos Villanueva has recorded four wins and a 3.19 earned-run average and his July performance (4-0, 1.93 ERA) earned him Blue Jays player of the month honours by the Toronto chapter of the Baseball Writers' Association of America. (Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

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Most baseball pundits would have laughed if it was suggested pre-season that Carlos Villanueva should start a win-or-go-home wild-card playoff game for the Toronto Blue Jays. But the versatile pitcher has emerged as the club's most effective starter, and should be signed to a contract extension.

If the Toronto Blue Jays were to secure one of the American League wild-card spots this season, they would play a one-game showdown against the other wild-card entry.

If that were to happen, what pitcher should manager John Farrell start in this must-win matchup?

If you polled Blue Jays fans, Ricky Romero, who has been dreadful over the past two months, probably wouldn't be the most popular choice, and it's difficult to gauge how effective or durable Brandon Morrow will be when he returns from his oblique (rib cage) injury.

And though Henderson Alvarez and Aaron Laffey have pitched adequately, fans - and probably Farrell himself - would likely select Carlos Villanueva to start this crucial contest.

At the beginning of the season, if you had suggested that Villanueva should start in a win-or-go-home playoff game, most baseball pundits would've laughed in your face. But over the past five weeks, the versatile 28-year-old has emerged as the Jays' most effective starter.

And if Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos isn't already discussing a contract extension with Villanueva, he should be. The unheralded Dominican hurler will become a free agent after the season.

Originally signed by the San Francisco Giants in 2002, Villanueva was dealt to the Milwaukee Brewers in March 2004. Anthopoulos acquired the crafty right-hander for a player to be named later (which turned out to be cash) in December 2010.

During parts of five seasons in Milwaukee, the six-foot-two right-hander was shuttled between the bullpen and starting rotation. But it was likely Villanueva's impressive 2010 strikeout totals (67 strikeouts in 52 2/3 innings) that piqued Anthopoulos's interest.

Reliable

Last season, Villanueva was a reliable middle reliever until he was thrust into the Jays' rotation on May 23 to replace the injured Jesse Litsch. In 13 starts, he held the opposition to three earned runs or less eight times before a right forearm injury sidelined him for a month.

He returned in September to pitch superbly out of the bullpen and the Jays signed him to a $2.2775-million US deal for 2012.

Villanueva was again effective as the long man out of the Jays' bullpen to begin the 2012 campaign. But when a spate of injuries decimated the rotation, he became a starter again on June 29.

In six starts, he has recorded four wins and a 3.19 earned-run average and his July performance (4-0, 1.93 ERA) earned him Blue Jays player of the month honours by the Toronto chapter of the Baseball Writers' Association of America.

Mixing all four of his pitches - including throwing his slider and changeup more frequently - Villanueva is striking out more batters this season (9.44 batters per nine innings compared to 5.72 in 2011). He has also induced nearly eight per cent more ground balls this season than in 2011, while permitting fewer fly balls and line drives.

Admittedly, if you examine his peripheral statistics, there are some to be concerned about. For example, he's averaging 4.12 walks per nine innings, up from 2.9 in 2011. And the .271 batting average that hitters have registered on balls in play (BABIP) is well below the major league average that's generally between .290 and .300.

So, Villanueva's relatively low BABIP would suggest that some luck has been involved in him racking up his impressive 2012 numbers and that an unsustainable number of balls hit off him have gone directly to his fielders.

That said, Villanueva is still arguably the best spot starter/long reliever in baseball and should be rewarded with a contract extension. A good starting point in discussions might be the two-year, $7.5-million deal the Phillies sealed with Kyle Kendrick, who fulfills a similar role and boasts comparable numbers, this past off-season.

Aware of market value
 
That, however, may be a little low when you consider that the Texas Rangers are forking out $6.5 million to spot starter/reliever Scott Feldman this season. But Feldman also has a 17-win campaign under his belt.

As a representative on the executive board of the MLB Players Association, Villanueva will be acutely aware of his market value. And the price for him will go up if he's allowed to test the free agent market and another team views him exclusively as a starter.

For his part, Villanueva appears content with his role and hasn't publicly expressed a desire to become a full-time starter.

"I'm not the kind of guy that goes around talking to the GM or the manager, (or) the pitching coach, 'What's going to happen? What am I doing? Am I going to do this or that?'" Villanueva told the Toronto Star earlier this year. "Maybe I've learned through the years not to bother them. They know what I can do and they know what I want to do, so if they give me the ball, I'll take it. I don't need to be babied."

Able to communicate in both English and Spanish, Villanueva has assumed a leadership role on the Jays staff. Outside of Villanueva, right-handed relievers Jason Frasor and Brandon Lyon will also be free agents this off-season, but they offer less versatility than the Dominican right-hander.

And with the long-term injuries to Kyle Drabek and Drew Hutchison and the 2012 struggles of former first-round picks Chad Jenkins and Deck McGuire, the Jays might need Villanueva in their rotation in 2013.

In a season in which the Jays' staff has been ravaged by injuries and ineptitude, Villanueva has been arguably the club's most dependable pitcher. The Jays should move now to offer him an extension in the two-year, $8-million range.

That's a small price to pay for a pitcher who most would select to start a must-win playoff game for the Jays.

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