Veteran Rotation Options for Rays: Carlos Villanueva
By Robbie Knopf
Last offseason, the Tampa Bay Rays brought in veteran left-hander Erik Bedard to serve as rotation depth. His presence proved to be important after Alex Cobb, Matt Moore, and Jeremy Hellickson were out to begin the year. This season, however, the Rays signed no Bedard-esque arm, and that could seemingly go down as a mistake. After all, Drew Smyly is injured, Alex Colome was delayed by visa issues, and each of the Rays’ Triple-A starters has some problem.
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The thing to remember, though, is that a starting pitcher does not have to be in Rays camp to begin the season in the team’s starting rotation. Specifically, there are several veteran starters who could be possibilities for the Rays if they do not make the Opening Day rosters of their current franchises and exercise the opt-outs in their contracts. A few more available players are out-of-options pitchers who will end up on waivers. We discussed Eric Stults yesterday, and Carlos Villanueva is up for today.
Of all of the players we will talk about, Carlos Villanueva may be the best fit. A 31-year-old right-hander, Villanueva wants to stay with the St. Louis Cardinals, but he also has an out clause in his minor league contract in case he does not make their Opening Day roster.
Villanueva makes so much sense for the Rays because he could begin the season as one of their starters before sliding to the bullpen. Villanueva has always been better as a reliever, and that was never truer than in 2014, when Villanueva put up a 2.64 ERA in 37 relief appearances for the Chicago Cubs, but just a 10.53 ERA in 5 starts. For his career, he has a 5.00 ERA in 424.2 innings as a starter compared to a 3.55 ERA in 439 relief innings.
Villanueva may be no better than the Rays’ starting options, but if handing him a couple of starts is enough to keep him around in their bullpen, it could be worthwhile. Villanueva has an extensive track record as a long reliever, and Mike Montgomery is the only pitcher the Rays have who could give them pause about handing Villanueva such a role. The fact that Villanueva also has experience as a big league starter is only a further feather in his cap.
Carlos Villanueva also has much better stuff than a pitcher like Cesar Ramos. While he doesn’t throw particularly hard, staying around 90 MPH with his fastball, Villanueva features a very good slider and two more solid pitches in his changeup and curveball. While Jim Hickey wouldn’t have much time to work with Villanueva before the season began even if he joined the Rays, Villanueva does have the type of arsenal that could put him a tweak or two away from a breakout.
As long as the Rays intend to start Alex Colome when he is ready for big league action, it makes sense for them to put Carlos Villanueva on their big league roster. However, will Villanueva opt out from his contract with the Cardinals and give the Rays a chance to sign him?
The current locks for the St. Louis bullpen are Trevor Rosenthal, Jordan Walden, Seth Maness, Matt Belisle, and Randy Choate. In their rotation, meanwhile, Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn, John Lackey, and Michael Wacha are the Cardinals’ top four starters, but both Wainwright and Lynn are dealing with minor injuries.
Carlos Martinez, Marco Gonzales, and Jaime Garcia are competing for the fifth starter spot, although more than one of them could make the team in case of injury. Villanueva is competing with Kevin Siegrist and the out-of-options Sam Freeman for two bullpen jobs, but one of the starters could also enter that mix. Gonzales would likely head back to Triple-A if he doesn’t win a rotation spot, but either Martinez or Garcia could take Villanueva’s long reliever role.
With that in mind, the scenario in which Villanueva does not make the Cardinals’ roster is pretty simple–all it takes is both Wainwright and Lynn proving themselves healthy. Then the Cardinals would have so much starting depth that his services may not be necessary, even in their bullpen. If the Cardinals like Villanueva enough, they can certainly keep him, but it isn’t difficult for the Rays to be optimistic about Villanueva’s eventual availability.
Just from a baseball fan’s perspective, it is a good thing to stay updated about the health of Wainwright and Lynn, and it may tangentially help the Rays if they are ready to go on Opening Day. There are always a lot of variables in play when we talk about these non-roster invitees with opt-outs, but Carlos Villanueva could fit with the Rays if a couple of factors work in their favor.