Carlos Villanueva had a slow start to Spring Training, but in his most recent start on Wednesday night against a strong Colorado Rockies lineup,Villanueva showed excellent command, striking out eight and walking one in four innings pitched. Despite a less than appealing 6.17 ERA in 11.2 innings pitched this spring, Villanueva will win the fifth spot in the Chicago Cubs‘ rotation for two reasons: One, he did an admirable job of filling this same role to begin the 2013 season, and two, the Cubs can maximize his trade value by showcasing Villanueva to the rest of MLB as a starting pitcher.
Villanueva will make $5 million this season before becoming a free agent at the end of the year. The Cubs have proven that they don’t like to let their players walk out the door without getting something back in return, as they frequently will flip players during the season to stockpile young talent. Throughout the Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer regime, the Cubs have consistently provided themselves with low-risk options that have a chance to return valuable assets by signing pitchers to reasonable short-term contracts such as Paul Maholm, Scott Feldman, Carlos Villanueva, Scott Baker and most recently Jason Hammel.
The Cubs have given these players a chance to succeed in a role that the rest of the league seems hesitant to hand over. In the case of Maholm and Feldman, the returns have been enormous, as their trades have netted the Cubs pitchers Arodys Vizcaino, Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop. It hasn’t always worked out, though, as fans witnessed last year with Scott Baker who was signed to a $5.5 million deal with incentives to earn another $1.5 million yet was only able to pitch in a few meaningless September games. Overall the Cubs have had a high success rate with these deals and have been incredibly consistent with the value of the contracts offered. They have all been right in the ballpark of the $6 million deal signed by Hammel this past offseason that included another $1 million worth of incentives.
Villanueva received a two-year contract at $5 million per season prior to 2013, and while results have been mostly positive, he clearly has more value as a capable starting pitcher than as an expensive reliever. He began the 2013 season on fire as he cruised to a 2.29 ERA in 35.1 April innings with the assistance of a .177 BABIP by opposing hitters. While Villanueva’s excellent start was predictably unsustainable, he finished the season strong in the bullpen and ended the year with a 3.86 FIP, 3.97 xFIP and 4.06 ERA in 128.2 innings pitched.
While Villanueva appears more than capable of succeeding as the No. 5 starter, Arrieta was the early favorite to win the job. However, he has been held back this spring due to shoulder tightness and is expected to miss at least the first couple weeks of the season. If Villanueva succeeds in the fifth starter role, Arrieta may head to the bullpen when he returns to the team. In all actuality, the bullpen may still be the best place for Arrieta to have long-term success.
If Villanueva can build on his positive 2013 season, the Cubs can again leverage value in a trade by showcasing his ability to start as well as his unrivaled mustache.