In a season fraught with injuries to the pitching staff, and the starting rotation in particular, Carlos Villanueva has been a blessing of sorts for the Toronto Blue Jays. The losses of Kyle Drabek, Dustin McGowan, and Drew Hutchison, coupled with the overall ineffectiveness of Ricky Romero forced the need for someone to step up and fill the void.
Carlos Villanueva answered that call.
Villanueva was already rock solid for Toronto out of the bullpen in 2012, going 2-0 with a 3.24 ERA and 36 strike-outs over 33.1 innings pitched out of the pen. However, it has been his transition to dependable starter that has been of most value to the Blue Jays. Through Thursday, Villanueva had made 13 starts in 2012 and thrown 78 innings, accruing a 5-5 record with a 3.58 ERA. His strike-out numbers dipped only slightly, from 9.7 to 8.4 per 9 innings pitched. Furthermore, his strike-out to walk ratio actually improved drastically from 1.71 as a reliever to 3.65 as a starter.
Now, with Villanueva set to become a free agent, if not offered arbitration, at the end of the season, Toronto is forced to place a value on him and needs to determine if it is as a starter or as a reliever, something Alex Anthopoulos is openly cautious about.
If he Anthopoulos examines Villenueva’s career splits, he’ll know that Villanueva is valued best out of the bullpen.
Through 245 career appearances out of the bullpen, Villanueva has a career mark of 17-13, with 3.76 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, and averages a strike-out per inning. Flipping the coin and looking at his statistics as a starter, where he has made 53 career appearances, Villanueva has posted a losing record of 16-20 and his ERA jumps to 4.57 and his WHIP to 1.349, while his strike-out rate plummets to 6.4 per 9 innings pitched. Opposing batters also have an OPS nearly 100 point higher against him as a starter than as a reliever.
That said, the Jays can make a risky decision if they choose to keep Villanueva in 2013.
They can offer him arbitration, which he is 3rd-year arbitration eligible already, but they will do so knowing that he will be asking for a big raise based on his 2012 performance. Depending on the demands, an arbitrator will look only at the last season’s body of work and make an appropriate decision if the two sides cannot come to an agreement in the middle.
Likewise, they can choose not to tender him an offer, granting him free agency. As a 28-year-old who has been inconsistent at best, this may be the best path to go, but they run the risk of also losing him to the market. There are some intriguing names available on the market this winter, but the free agent reliever market has also become an expensive albatross for some teams and can be a bigger crap shoot than banking on Villanueva to repeat his 2012 campaign.
In the end, it is all just a roll of the dice and living with the wager.