Carlos Villanueva has seen this picture before.
Freshly signed to a two-year, $10 million contract with the Chicago Cubs that was finalized this weekend, the 29-year old righty finds himself exactly where he was a year ago with the Toronto Blue Jays – on the outside looking in for a job in a starting rotation.
With the Cubs having acquired Edwin Jackson, Scott Baker, and Scott Feldman to fill out its starting rotation, Villanueva will have his work cut out for him to try to land a job in the starting rotation. It’s a battle he likely won’t win out of the gate, with Baker and Feldman both having the inside track for the jobs, and Travis Wood looming should something happen.
That doesn’t mean Villanueva won’t end up contributing as a starting pitcher in Chicago in 2013, though.
As a swingman with the Blue Jays over the last couple of seasons, Villanueva played an important part in stabilizing the rotation when needed, making a career-high 16 starts in 2012 when the Toronto rotation fell apart due to injuries. While the Cubs will put forth a sneaky-good rotation in terms of talent in 2013, it’s certainly not without volatility.
Jeff Samardzija was a revelation last season, and will be counted on atop the rotation in 2013, but he has never thrown more than 175 innings, and will be on pace to enter new territory as he looks to make 30+ starts. Matt Garza had not been an unreliable number-two pitcher…until his elbow issues caused him to miss nearly half the season. How he’ll respond in the coming year is something of a wild card, considering that he’s never missed this much time in his career. Feldman could easily wind up being a bargain despite his 5.09 ERA in 2012, but only pitched 123 innings all year. Ditto Baker, who has always had great stuff, but is more than a year removed from his last major league appearance.
There are no sure things in this rotation, and Villanueva has been through it before in Toronto. The wild cards at his new club in Chicago will likely afford him (and Wood) the opportunity to make his fair share of starts this season, even if he’ll likely start the season in the bullpen as a long reliever.
When he did finally get the opportunity last season, Villanueva thrived in the starting role before eventually running out of gas in September. In fact, he was better than good, going through a 10-start run in July and August that saw the righty put up a 2.85 ERA and a K/9 of just a hair under 9.
If he can replicate those numbers when called upon to start for the Cubs in 2013, perhaps he’ll finally earn the opportunity to shake the swingman tag from his resume yet.