How does a team replace a starting pitcher who dazzled opposing batters with an almost un-hittable, floating pitch, won over fans with a quirky, folk-hero personality, and worked so hard to finally live-up to his former first-round pick status an incredible fourteen years after the fact?
As witnessed by Zack Greinke‘s six-year, $147 million free agent contract (worth upwards of $158 million with all the incentives) and even the presumed Dickey trade on the table, finding an elite pitcher via free agency or on trade market is an endeavor the Mets can not and should not participate in.
And that’s why the Mets should, instead, sign Carlos Villanueva.
Villanueva is one of the more versatile pitchers on the free agent market.
Even though he started thirteen and sixteen games, respectively, over the past two seasons—both career highs–the 29 year-old right-hander also has significant experience as a reliever too. In fact, the Dominican-native has entered 245 games as a reliever, and finished fifty-nine of them.
And even though Villanueva’s career role-splits favorably label him as a reliever (.224/.303/.374 as a RP, .273/.328/.476 as a SP), that doesn’t mean the pitcher isn’t a capable, valuable starter.
The beginning of the righty’s 2011 season started much like the beginning of his 2012.
Villanueva was slotted as a reliever for the Blue Jays, but due to injuries, he got a crack at the rotation.
In his first nine starts in 2011, Villanueva appeared to be a diamond in the rough, posting a 3.67 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, and 2.53 K/BB (along with a .249/.298/.349 line against).
But while the job was his to lose, lose it he did. Over the course of his next four starts, the pitcher hurled an ugly 9.31 ERA, 1.86 WHIP, and 3.00 K/BB. To put it in perspective, opposing hitters smacked a .367/.385/.644 line against.
The Blue Jays quickly yanked the fading Villanueva from the rotation, and placed him back in their bullpen, where he remained for the rest of the season.
Overall, his 4.04 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, and 2.13 K/BB in 2011 was a fruitful season–worth 1.8 WAR, in fact–but his late-season breakdown as a starter for sure cost him a rotation opportunity heading into 2012.
Yet, similar to 2011, Villanueva again got the call when injury struck. Starting in late-June–and over the course of eleven starts–Villanueva more or less dominated the American League.
The righty pitched to the tune of a 3.03 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, and 3.82 K/BB. Opposing hitters only managed a mere .227/.279/.374 line against to boot. With his impending free agency, many thought Villanueva was in-line for a rewarding extension.
However–like clockwork–the pitcher simply could not finish strong. In the month of September, Villanueva spun out of control, posting a dismal 8.10 ERA, 1.53 WHIP, 2.62 K/BB, with a horrendous .314/.357/.686 line against.
Instead of securing the extension he, a month earlier, deserved, Villanueva was now met with doubts about his durability from the Blue Jays front office.
Since the end of the season, the Toronto Blue Jays have been the busiest team in baseball, building what could perhaps be their first World Series-caliber team since the early-1990′s.
While it’s possible Villanueva could return to the Blue Jays as a full-time reliever, if the 29 year-old truly wants to be a starting pitcher, it would most likely have to be outside of Toronto.
Considering his consecutive end-of-season fades, the concerns about his durability as a dependable starter are just.
But with Zack Wheeler waiting in the wings, the Mets don’t need Villanueva to be a 200-inning horse (though I’m sure the Mets wouldn’t complain).
If Carlos Villanueva could give the Mets his now-usual nine-to-eleven quality starts, and hand the keys over to “the future” later in the season, it would be a prudent signing for the rebuilding franchise.