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Should The Toronto Blue Jays Extend Carlos Villanueva?

Carlos Villanueva is a fascinating story for the Toronto Blue Jays. He started off the season in the bullpen, struggling significantly to get opposing hitters out. Once the pitching staff was decimated with injuries Carlos Villanueva was thrust into a starting role, and he’s been dominant ever since. As a pending free agent, some have suggested that the Jays re-sign the right hander to give them a potentially useful arm for 2013. Is that a wise decision for Toronto? Let’s take a look.

The biggest change for Villanueva this season is the return of his strikeout rate. Last season split between the pen and the rotation Villanueva averaged a 5.72 K/9. This year his strikeout rate has jumped all the way up to 9.31 K/9, which would be the second highest strikeout rate of Villanueva’s career. His ability to strikeout hitters at an elite rate is likely responsible for his 83% strand rate, a reason his ERA is so low.

Unfortunately for Villanueva, both his strikeout rate and his strand rate aren’t sustainable. But we already knew that, as nobody expected him to be a 3.10 ERA pitcher going forward. Villanueva’s FIP of 4.02 is nearly identical to last season’s 4.10, so it’s very likely that his ERA will be similar to last year’s 4.04. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially given the Jays lack of pitching depth. But it’s not something the Jays should spend significant money on either. Villanueva simply isn’t the kind of talent that contending teams should overpay for, and if he wants a significant raise the Blue Jays need to be able to take a step back and simply let someone else give him the big bucks.

Villanueva has stated that he wants to be a starter next season. The problem with handing him a spot in the starting 5 is that he’s never thrown more than 114 1/3 innings in any season. Ideally you’d expect 33 starts and around 200 innings from your starters, and it’s unlikely Villanueva would do that.

Some would point to the example of CJ Wilson, a below average reliever who transitioned to the rotation a few years ago. Like Villanueva, Wilson didn’t have a ton of innings on his arm and there was a significant risk in making him a starter. But Wilson survived the jump in innings, and the Texas Rangers were rewarded with an elite left hander in the rotation. But examples like Wilson are few and far between, and there is no guarantee that Villanueva would succeed as a starter.

Despite what my colleague Thom Tsang has argued, if the Jays plan on competing next season then they can’t afford to take on the risk that Villanueva may not be able to handle the transition to the rotation. They need quality and reliable arms that are capable of going deep into games in order to give the offence a chance to get a lead and keep the bullpen from getting overworked. And they can’t guarantee that they’ll get that type of production from Villanueva. This season has shown the Jays need quality and proven depth in the rotation, and signing Carlos Villanueva to be a starter is simply a risk that the Jays can’t afford to take in 2013.