Toronto Blue Jays’ Carlos Villanueva Fading Quickly As Free Agency Looms

Joy R. Absalon-US PRESSWIRE

So there was no injury to Carlos Villanueva after all, despite talks of late-season elbow soreness having affected his recent starts.

Still, the Toronto Blue Jays starter didn’t have much on the mound in his latest outing, collapsing against the Baltimore Orioles and once again unable to keep the ball out of the park. Villanueva gave up more long balls last night (four) in his 4.2 innings than he did in his first 4 starts of the season, giving up six runs on seven hits against the AL East contenders despite striking out seven and walking just a batter in that span.

It was the righty’s third start this month where he’s allowed six or more runs. Whether the steep drop in performance is health-related or not, it certainly isn’t the way that Villanueva wants to go into free agency, especially after Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos expressed doubt earlier this month about Villanueva’s ability to hold up as an effective starter over 30 starts.

Whether he was pleased with it or not, he’s doing little to dispel Anthopoulos’ statements. It’s more or less the same story Blue Jays fans saw last season: Villanueva coming out of the gate strong, only to fade as he pushed 100 innings. Last year, forearm problems shut Villanueva down for over a month, before he returned as a long reliever. This season, he didn’t end up missing any games due to injury issues (I’m guessing impending free agency has just a little bit to do with it), but has seen his effectiveness on the mound drop off significantly.

It was only a month ago that much of the chatter around Villanueva was the feel-good story of the underdog long-reliever earning his way into the Blue Jays’ starting rotation, posting a 3.04/1.09 ERA/WHIP over his first 11 starts. That’s no longer the case now following a 8.10/1.54 ERA/WHIP 26.2-inning stretch over five starts that has seen Villanueva’s season ERA balloon over a full point, from 3.10 to 4.16. Opponents batted just .183 against him in July, and .235 in August. That number is now headed up to .314.

Despite his previous body of work and the fact that he still has good control (2.70 BB/9), I suspect that most teams looking at Villanueva as a starter in the free agency period will be weary of that trend.

Much of Villanueva’s issues on the mound this month is tied to his propensity to give up the long ball. It’s a problem that he’s managed over the first couple of months as a starter, but a league-leading 3.38 September HR/9 has him scuffling badly as the season draws to a close.

Arm soreness and a reduction in fastball velocity are said to be partial culprits, but Villanueva was in his regular range last night and the Orioles still feasted off his secondary pitchers, with homers from Jim Thome and Manny Machado coming off his change-up as he tired in the fifth and Chris Davis chasing him from the game with the third homer of the inning – this one coming off a slider.

Whatever it is that’s causing the problem, the 28-year old has very limited opportunity to correct it–one start, precisely. His value as a free agent falling, Villanueva will have one more shot at finishing out the 2012 season–and perhaps his time with the Blue Jays–with some semblance of redemption and  show potential suitors that he more full-time starter than swingman.

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