CHICAGO – With Matt Garza’s return to the rotation on the horizon, manager Dale Sveum has a tough decision looming.
The Cubs will need to create a spot for Garza, who has potentially three rehab starts before he will be ready to join the team. Cubs starting pitchers have combined for 17 quality starts, posting a 2.08 ERA in those outings. Only four teams have more quality starts than the Cubs: St. Louis (21), Cincinnati (20), Philadelphia (18) and Washington (18).
“It’s a good problem to have because we have starting pitching that’s been pitching really well, but sometimes those things work themselves out by the time he’s ready to pitch,” Sveum said. “If not, we all know in this room it’s going to be one heck of a decision with what we’re going to do.”
Right-hander Carlos Villanueva was the latest to make his case. Villanueva allowed four runs in 52/3 innings during a 6-5 loss to the Reds on Friday at Wrigley Field and threw only 59 of his 95 pitches for strikes.
“He couldn’t keep the ball down,” Sveum said. “Everything was up, every breaking ball, fastball ... it was up in the zone and was missing his location.”
After stringing together four consecutive quality starts to begin the season, Friday’s start was the second in a row Villanueva (1-2) gave up four runs. Sveum downplayed Villanueva’s issues with locating pitches, noting it’s a small sample size six starts into the season. While the conditions weren’t great at Wrigley Field Friday as rain cooled the temperature to 41 degrees with 12 mph winds, Villanueva didn’t make excuses.
“You try to not get too caught up in the conditions, I pitch my game regardless,” Villanueva said. “If [the wind] is blowing in or out, I can’t change my game plan because of that.”
However, the developing trend of leaving pitches up in the zone could be one of the factors that make Villanueva the odd man out when Garza returns in approximately three weeks. Jeff Samardzija (3.35 ERA) is a lock to stay in the rotation as well as Edwin Jackson, despite his 0-4 record and 6.27 ERA.
The Cubs didn’t give Jackson a four-year, $52-million contract to pitch out of the bullpen. On top of Travis Wood’s stellar numbers (team-leading 2.50 ERA with six quality starts in six outings), he’s a left hander, which they need to keep the rotation somewhat balanced.
Unless an injury pops up within the next month, Villanueva is competing against right-hander Scott Feldman for the final spot. Although Feldman has had his fair share of shaky moments, he threw the Cubs’ first complete game of the season Wednesday against the Padres. Feldman, like Villanueva, has been predominately used as a long reliever the last few years while earning an occasional spot start.
“My last two starts I’m one pitch away from having two quality outings,” Villanueva said. “The good part is I’m close to where I want to be, I’m just not putting that guy away when I need to.”
Villanueva is on pace to easily surpass last year’s innings pitched (125 1/3), a mark he should hit within the next 10 starts if he stays in the rotation. But more concerning is opponents’ batting average on balls in play against Villanueva. Even after Friday’s performance when he allowed seven hits, Villanueva’s BABIP sits at .210.
However, Villanueva’s career BABIP is .276, and at some point he will likely regress toward his career average. That doesn’t bode well for Villanueva, because as more hitters reach base, the greater the potential for runs to score. In Friday’s outing, the Reds had a .350 average on balls hit in play against him.
For his part, Villanueva wouldn’t dwell on the implication of Garza’s return. As well as Villanueva has pitched, his experience as a long reliever – he started 17 total games the previous three seasons compared to Feldman’s 45 during that span – and some struggles with his location may leave him an unhappy man in the bullpen.
“You ask Dale that, and you ask Theo [Epstein] and Jed [Hoyer], because I don’t have any control over that,” Villanueva said. “I get the ball and I pitch.”
• Meghan Montemurro covers the White Sox and Cubs for Shaw Media. Write to her at email@example.com. Read the Sox Insider and Inside the Cubs blogs at NWHerald.com and on Twitter @Sox_Insider and @InsideTheCubs.