We’re not entirely sure what the Royals approach to pitching acquisitions will be this offseason. We thought we knew. David Glass said he was going to spend money to improve the starting rotation.
But then the Royals also seemed to fall back into old habits. With the prospect of Anibal Sanchez and Edwin Jackson and Kyle Lohse hitting the free agent market, the Royals prepared by … claiming Chris Volstad. Then they stated that “we know who we are” and hinted that they may try to create a pitching staff out of spare parts and leftovers. Then they traded for Ervin Santana and his $13 million salary for 2013 (even though the Royals will pay just $12 million of that). So Glass is willing to pay up. But they’ve also claimed Guillermo Moscoso, so that’s more depth, but more depth that might make ten or more starts for this team.
So their approach hasn’t been clear. There’s been some backtracking and double talk. Nothing new.
In light of that, perhaps it’s time to take a look at one of those potential bargains out there.
Carlos Villanueva is about as average a pitcher as you can find. His ERA+, comparing his ERA to those of other pitchers in his league and adjusting for his ballpark, is 100, right at the balance point between below and above average. His average fastball velocity is 88.8 mph. It was 88.8 mph when he was a rookie in 2007, it was 88.9 mph in 2012. Steady, but very average. It’s possible his favorite lunch is a slice of lean turkey on two pieces of wheat toast with no mayo. It’ll work but dang, it’s not all that interesting.
He’s bounced from starter to reliever and back, mostly with the Brewers. He’s been the long relief guy – not quite good enough to be the starter, but not dominant enough to be a back inning reliever. He’s right in the middle. He’s the Switzerland of pitchers.
That’s also probably why the Royals are going to end up signing him, too.
I’m not suggesting that the Royals go after boring pitchers, but it does seem that part of their strategy this offseason includes finding the overlooked, the underappreciated on the market and seeing what can happen. Find a player looking for opportunity with some evidence of skills and see if he rises up to it. All the better if the investment is relatively low. Villanueva is that guy. He’s a low risk, low reward option.
Villanueva ended 2012 starting sixteen games for Toronto and he is likely seeking a destination that would allow him to start full time. This is a role where he’s never been greatly successful in, but he’s never been shelled either (again, average). In 315 innings in his career as a starter, he has a 4.80 ERA. As a reliever his career ERA is 3.76 in 342.1 innings. Nothing too spectacular.
While Villanueva has never received a good, solid look as a starter until the second half of 2011, he fared alright in that role, though he tailed off the longer he went. In nine starts from May 23 to July 7 in 2011, he had a 3.67 ERA in 54 innings. In his next four, he gave up 20 runs in 19.1 innings and got sent back to the bullpen after missing most of August with a forearm strain.
From June 29 until September 26 in 2012, he made 16 starts and covered 92 inning – or 5.75 innings a start. That’s not great, but it’s not bad (as is the pattern with this guy), but what intrigues me is that he only averaged just over 90 pitches per start and pitched at least six innings in 11 of them. In all but two starts, he made it through at least five innings. Even in a few games where he had a good line, he’d come out after 90 pitches or so – and his high pitch count was 103 in a six inning start on August 8. He’s been effective, but the Blue Jays held him back, either getting him up to speed or just held him back. He sat around an average of 15.78 pitches per inning as a starter, which is acceptable.
The question would be if Villanueva can start full time. It seems a worthy experiment considering the potential investment. Villanueva’s worst seasons happened to be just before he was starting arbitration. In 2012, he was being paid as a middle reliever, making just under $2.3 million.
He’s seeking a long-term deal and the opportunity to start. The Royals can probably offer both of those. In stretches, Villanueva has been effective as a starter, but in both late 2011 and 2012 he slumped – and therein lies the concern. Can he be durable enough to make 30 starts for a big league team? Those doubts will prevent him from cashing in this offseason. And for a team in Kansas City’s situation, even when searching the bargain aisles, it’s probably enough to cause them to pass.