Chicago Cubs: Carlos Villanueva

Offseason begins; Villanueva lone FA

October, 30, 2014
Oct 30
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
CHICAGO -- Chicago Cubs pitcher Carlos Villanueva was one of 121 players that became eligible for free agency Thursday as the Major League Baseball offseason officially began. Villanueva is the lone Cubs free agent and isn’t expected back after a two-year stint as a long man/starter.

Beginning Monday at 11 p.m. CST, Villanueva, and every other free agent, can negotiate and sign a contract with any team in the league.

The Cubs have stated that they are searching for starting pitching as well as a veteran outfielder this winter. They’d like to add some leadership in the locker room, preferably someone with playoff experience. Catching is also a possible need position, although the Cubs have said all the right things about Welington Castillo despite some inconsistency in his game.

Technically, the Cubs have only a handful of players under contract for 2015, but everyone else besides Villanueva either is under team control, eligible for arbitration or has a team option for next season. For example, lefty pitcher Tsuyoshi Wada has a $5 million option that the Cubs need to pick-up or decline in the coming days.

The Cubs may pursue several starting pitchers this offseason, but they aren’t necessarily committed to signing a top-of-the-rotation hurler this winter. Jon Lester is a possibility, but a stronger and deeper free agent class next offseason -- when the Cubs are closer to becoming a real contender -- is more likely to fill their needs on the mound. In the outfield, righty veteran Johnny Gomes could be a possibility, as could a player like Mike Morse of the San Francisco Giants. The Cubs will look for someone who can split time with lefty Chris Coghlan in left field. A surprise move could come in center field if the Cubs feel they need a more natural fit there than youngster Arismendy Alcantara.

Think second-tier in the outfield and first- and second-tier on the mound as the Cubs begin looking for players. It remains to be seen if they would open their checkbook for the prize free agent behind the plate, Russell Martin of the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Pirates have until Monday night to sign Martin before he becomes available to the other 29 teams.

First things first. The Cubs need to settle their managerial situation, as that could impact their budget for 2015. Paying two managers might reduce the money allotted for free agents.

Just how good was Soler's first week?

September, 5, 2014
Sep 5
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
CHICAGO -- The list of Chicago Cubs rookie Jorge Soler's early season accomplishments continues to grow with each game. And he will just be starting his second week in the big leagues when he takes the field Friday against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

[+] EnlargeJorge Soler
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastJorge Soler has 10 RBIs in his first seven games.
Here's what he has done so far in his career, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, in going 12-for-26 (.462) including three home runs, five doubles and 10 RBIs through seven games:

• Over the past 60 years, only Yasiel Puig, Paul Molitor and Mitchell Page produced at least 10 hits and 10 RBIs in their first seven career games.

• Soler tied the modern major-league record for consecutive games with an extra-base hit from the start of a career with five. The only other players to accomplish that in each of their first five big-league games were Will Middlebrooks in 2012 and Hall of Famer Enos Slaughter in 1938.

• Soler hit three home runs in his first three games. Javier Baez did the same earlier this season. The Cubs' duo joined Joe Cunningham (1954) as the only three players since 1900 to go long three times that quickly.

• And Soler is the fourth player in history to have an RBI in at least six of his first seven major-league games.

Soler's start is even better when you consider his age (22) and time in the minor leagues. Because of injuries he has totaled only one full season of at-bats despite being down on the farm from 2012 to '14.

"His at-bats are very close to what's been described to what he's been doing in the minor leagues," manager Rick Renteria said Wednesday. "If you described them from the minor-league reports, it's exactly what's happening here right now. It's a great thing to see."

Jorge Soler heat mapESPN Stats & Information
That easy transition is the reason Soler is accomplishing so much. An initial burst has been followed up with plenty of good at-bats, even when the hits aren't coming. Pitchers haven't found a weakness as he has muscled balls to left field and also showed incredible power to the opposite field.

"He's got a gift," Renteria said. "He's got a great eye and is very calm in the box."

It's important to understand the difference between Soler and fellow Cuban phenom Jose Abreu. Abreu came ready-made. He started this year with the White Sox at 27 years old with plenty of experience in Cuba. Soler is five years younger and with that much less time on the field.

"What he's doing at that age and experience level is unbelievable," teammate Carlos Villanueva said.

And of course the difference between the starts Soler and Baez have had to their careers surrounds plate discipline and the swings and misses. Soler's strikeout percentage is about 21 percent. Baez is nearly double that number. You get the feeling that gap between the two may always be there.

So what's next for Soler? A hit on Friday would give him one in eight straight games. Only four players since 1920 have begun their careers with a hit in eight straight to go along with 10 or more RBIs. The last time it happened was 1993.

ESPN Stats & Information along with the Elias Sports Bureau should just monitor his every at-bat. At this rate, there's bound to be a new accomplishment whenever he steps to the plate.

Soler impresses again in home debut

September, 1, 2014
Sep 1
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
CHICAGO -- Talk to anyone that’s been around Chicago Cubs rookie Jorge Soler, both in the minors and in his first week of his major league career, and three words keep coming up:

“He is strong.”

Jorge Soler
David Banks/Getty ImagesJorge Soler has at least one extra-base hit in his first five games in the majors.
That strength has propelled him to achieve a feat only two other players have accomplished in the last 100 years, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. He’s the third to earn at least one extra-base hit in his first five games in the majors after collecting two more in the Cubs' 4-2 win over the Milwaukee Brewers in Soler’s Wrigley Field debut Monday. He blasted two balls to right field for doubles, one to the corner and one off the wall in right center.

“He stays inside the pitches really, really well,” Cubs manager Rick Renteria said after the game. “And then he stays through it. He really gets extension. He is what you would call ‘short to the ball and long through it.’”

It’s almost an inside-out feel to the swing considering neither pitch was on the outer half of the plate. But that’s not the case. It’s pure strength which propels what might be a simple fly ball for some players to an extra-base hit. Teams may have to start playing him closer to the warning track.

“Not many times have I gone deep over the right-field fence but I have that mental approach, towards the middle,” Soler said through an interpreter.

Renteria likened the finish to his swing to a pitcher’s follow through or an infielder’s motion on a good throw. The finish is what sets him apart.

(Read full post)

Cubs bid farewell to Samardzija, Hammel

July, 5, 2014
Jul 5
By Benjamin Standig
Professionally speaking, Jeff Samardzija grew up with the Cubs. Chicago selected the 6-foot-5 pitcher in the fifth round of the 2006 amateur draft. Samardzija made his big league debut in 2008, made 83 starts over the next six seasons and made plenty of friends in the locker room along the way.

Those days are done, with the Cubs anyway. After yearlong rumors, Chicago sent Samardzija and pitcher Jason Hammel to the Oakland A's late Friday night in a trade that looked more toward the future than the present.

Starlin Castro
Brian Kersey/Getty ImagesStarlin Castro isn't concerned that the Cubs traded for top prospect Addison Russell, who also plays shortstop.
Samardzija's teammates focused on the past when asked for reaction before Saturday's road game against the Washington Nationals.

"We shared a beer and a cigarette and sent him on his way," reliever James Russell said. "It's not fun. We have been through this before. It's just tough to see your boys leave."

Second baseman Darwin Barney had a more difficult time finding the proper sendoff.

“It’s always hard to say goodbye to a dude. What do you do? Do you slap hands? Do you hug? It’s tough," Barney joked. "We’ve known each other for so long and we have built a relationship. He throws ground balls and I catch ground balls.”

Samardzija (2-7, 2.83) was scheduled to pitch Saturday. He is also scheduled to become a free agent after the 2015 season. The two sides could not come to terms on a long-term extension.

(Read full post)

Unlikely candidates solidifying Cubs' pen

June, 9, 2014
Jun 9
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
PITTSBURGH -- The Chicago Cubs' mini-resurgence over the past six games can be directly related to the success of their bullpen, especially at the back end. It's not exactly something they keep track of but there can't be many teams in baseball -- if any -- using a player to be named later and a Rule 5 draft pick as their setup man and closer like the Cubs.

Neil Ramirez and Hector Rondon came upon the jobs out of some desperation by manager Rick Renteria after early-season failure by others. But now that they have them, Rondon and Ramirez are thriving as two of the biggest surprises of the season.

[+] EnlargeHector Rondon
AP Photo/Andrew A. NellesHector Rondon hasn't allowed a run in eight road appearances this season.
"Up until this point I'd be hard-pressed to see any other back end of the bullpen as good as we've been throwing," Renteria said Friday.

Only the Cincinnati Reds' combination of Jonathan Broxton and Aroldis Chapman have better numbers in the NL Central. If Ramirez and Rondon aren't the best, they're in the team photo.

"Those guys have been doing a great job," starter Travis Wood said recently.

Carlos Villanueva added: "Those guys know when they're going to be called into the game now. It's working."

How did they win their respective jobs? They don't give out many free passes. It's the first rule of a late-inning reliever, especially on the Cubs, who don't blow teams out very often. If they're going to win there's a good chance it's going to be a close game and walking the opposition is the kiss of death. It's the reason Ramirez and Rondon have become the A team for Renteria when he goes to the bullpen with a lead and players such as Justin Grimm and Pedro Strop have emerged as the B team. At the start of the season those roles were basically reversed.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Ramirez and Rondon have five walks combined in the eighth and ninth innings this season over the course of 26 appearances. And in 25 innings combined they've struck out 34. Five walks, 34 strikeouts. Again, only Broxton and Chapman exceed that strikeout-to-walk ratio in the eighth and ninth innings within the division. But Chapman was one of the most heralded pitchers when he entered the league. Ramirez and Rondon didn't exactly get the same headlines.

The phrases "player to be named later" and "Rule 5 pick" don't exactly scream "top prospects," but that doesn't mean they can't be talented players.

Sometimes a player to be named is just a throw-in, but not so much in Ramirez's case. The Cubs wanted him when they traded Matt Garza to the Texas Rangers last July for four players including CJ Edwards, Mike Olt, Grimm and Ramirez. But Ramirez was injured and the Cubs wanted to make sure he was healthy before taking him. Ramirez pretty much knew all along he was going to Chicago once he recovered from a shoulder injury, and in late August he finally became a Cub.

Just less than a year later, Ramirez has become the most accomplished of the four players acquired in the trade. Third baseman Olt has nine home runs, but he's hitting .150. Edwards is recovering from shoulder soreness in Double-A and Ramirez vaulted past Grimm as the main setup man and sometimes closer.

Ramirez earned his first career save Thursday over the New York Mets. Overall he's 0-1 with a 0.64 ERA in 14 innings pitched and has struck out 23 while walking four. In fact, according to Stats Inc., Ramirez has the lowest ERA of any Cubs reliever in his first 16 appearances going back 100 years.

[+] EnlargeNeil Ramirez
AP PhotoNeil Ramirez has allowed just one earned run in 16 appearances this season.
"The thing with Neil is he's a very emotional guy," Villanueva said recently. "Usually guys come up in the big leagues and they're a little timid, 'Oh, I'm facing Ryan Braun,' forget Ryan Braun. He knows he has the stuff to get anyone out."

Ramirez got Braun to whiff for his first career strikeout in late April and he hasn't looked back. A converted reliever at Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio's suggestion, there's a good chance Ramirez tries his hand at starting again next year. His stuff, which includes a fastball, curveball, slider and yet to be seen change-up, is so good the Cubs would be missing an opportunity if they didn't try it in 2015.

Rondon's rise to closer is just as unlikely. The Rule 5 draft is almost an afterthought at the baseball winter meetings. Held on the last day as teams are scurrying out of town, there have been some notable pickups. Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente is the most famous, but there have been plenty of serviceable players languishing in the minors not protected by their team's 40-man roster.

Rondon was one for the Cleveland Indians when the Cubs rescued him in December 2012. General manager Jed Hoyer said at the time "we really spent a lot of time on this guy," when they chose him. They saw something in him as he was recovering from elbow issues.

Rondon came on strong toward the end of last season before Bosio declared him his "project" this spring. He'll have his hiccups -- he had a small one Friday in a blown save -- but Rondon has shown the ability and mental makeup to handle the job so far. He's 7-of-9 in save opportunities with a 2.45 ERA. The Marlins had three bloop hits en route to his missed chance Friday and considering the Cubs' recent history on the back end those numbers are more than worthy of praise.

Maybe the bullpen roller coaster has finally quieted down after several seasons of upheaval. For the moment, anyway, Rondon and Ramirez have calmed things down at the end of games, as unlikely as that scenario seemed a couple of months ago.

"No question, they're getting the job done," Renteria said.

Podcast: Carlos Villanueva on young pen

June, 5, 2014
Jun 5
By Staff
ESPNChicago's Jesse Rogers talks with Cubs reliever Carlos Villanueva about the recent success of the bullpen and what happens if he's traded.

Play Download

Click here for more audio from ESPN Chicago.

Cubs bullpen becoming a strength

June, 4, 2014
Jun 4
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
CHICAGO – As if on cue, the Chicago Cubs bullpen backed up the faith their bosses had placed in them when they designated for assignment veteran Jose Veras and his $4 million contract on Tuesday. The Cubs are committed to finding the next crop of relievers, and they might have hit on some after another productive performance in a 2-1 win over the New York Mets.

Four relievers combined for 4 1/3 shutout innings while giving up just two hits and no walks.

“It’s been a common theme for the bullpen to come in in big situations and do a big job for us,” Tuesday’s starter, Jake Arrieta, said after the game. “Neil [Ramirez] was great. [Brian] Schlitter was good there. And [Hector] Rondon is a tough guy to deal with there toward the latter part of the ballgame.”

[+] EnlargeCubs
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhThe Cubs' young bullpen staff could put an end to a seemingly annual weakness for this organization.
All of those pitchers are young enough to be part of the Cubs' core moving forward. And none were necessarily in the jobs they thought they would be in out of spring training. This crew has kind of come together out of nowhere.

“They did a nice job,” manager Rick Renteria said. “They kept us in the ballgame.”

They’ve been doing that more often than not lately. The Cubs' bullpen ranks sixth in the National League with a 3.17 ERA, but it’s been even better lately. Over the past 19 games, their ERA is 1.82, enough to prompt the team to give up on Veras even though he was starting to come around. He’s not part of the future. These guys are.

“I think that’s how you build teams,” Justin Grimm said. “Coming together takes time and experience. You just can’t throw a bunch of guys together and expect them to be a great team. It takes more than that. It takes knowing guys and knowing each other.”

Which means sticking around for more than one season, potentially. Relievers are “volatile” by nature, as general manager Jed Hoyer said before the game, but the Cubs are young enough and possibly good enough to stabilize a seemingly annual weakness for this organization. They have some very live arms.

“We’ve been doing well lately,” Schlitter said. “It’s nice to be noticed. We’re coming into every situation there is and getting out of it.”

The young group gives credit to the one veteran left, Carlos Villanueva. He might be gone someday soon as well, but for now, he’s leading the group.

“He’s been the guy to show us the way,” Grimm said. “When he gets on us, it’s strictly love.”

So a group of good arms led by a veteran might turn into a strength for the Cubs. Already it has made their offseason addition of Veras expendable and given them some hope in an area of the game that doesn’t get talked about enough but is essential to winning. A young Cubs bullpen is getting experience and getting the job done.

“We think they’re going after the younger crowd,” Grimm joked. “We try to keep each other in check the best we can.”

Rapid Reaction: Cards 4, Cubs 3 (F/12)

May, 14, 2014
May 14
Rogers By Jesse Rogers

ST. LOUIS –- The Cubs lost 4-3 to the Cardinals in 12 innings on Tuesday night. Here’s a quick look:

How it happened: Justin Grimm walked two in the bottom of the 12th inning before Greg Garcia won the game when Grimm hit him with a pitch with the bases loaded. The Cubs tied the game at 3 with two outs in the ninth as Emilio Bonifacio drove in Junior Lake. The Cardinals took their first lead in the sixth inning as relievers Carlos Villanueva and Wesley Wright couldn’t hold a 2-1 advantage. A fielder’s choice by Matt Carpenter and an RBI single by Jhonny Peralta tied and then put St. Louis ahead. Luis Valbuena hit a two-run home run off of Adam Wainwright to open the scoring in the third inning. The Cardinals got one back in the bottom of the inning on an infield hit by Matt Adams, scoring Matt Holliday, who had walked. Peralta fell down running the bases and was eventually tagged out, otherwise St. Louis would have scored more in the third.

Jake Arrieta was taken out after four innings and 82 pitches as he continues to build up arm strength after just three starts this season. He’s thrown very well in two of them -– though he walked five on Tuesday –- as he’s shut down the Cardinals offense twice now.

What it means: Arrieta is progressing as planned. He had five strikeouts; his off-speed stuff was working. You don’t like to see him walk two batters to open an inning after his team takes a 2-0 lead, though. It made for a long third inning. But the results were pretty good for just his third start, and he limited the damage –- with a little help from Peralta’s baserunning issue. Grimm is having issues, there is no doubt about it. As he put it last time he lost a game, “the struggles this month are real.”

Rick Renteria will look smart for inserting Valbuena in the lineup and sitting Mike Olt, but is Valbuena’s home run more important than Olt’s progression? More importantly, Valbuena could have played second base to keep Olt in the lineup. Darwin Barney followed up his three-hit night on Monday by taking the collar on Tuesday, though he did draw a ninth-inning walk. Olt drew a pinch-hit walk in the seventh.

Wood retaliation: Before the game, Renteria was asked if he thought the Cardinals purposely retaliated during Monday’s game after starter Travis Wood plunked two batters in the fifth inning. Wood was beaned to lead off the sixth.

“Those are your words. I didn’t see anything wrong yesterday,” Renteria said with a smile.

What’s next: Game 3 of the four-game series takes place on Wednesday night when Jason Hammel (4-1, 2.45) faces Michael Wacha (2-3, 2.85).

Series preview: Cubs at Reds

April, 28, 2014
Apr 28
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
CINCINNATI -- The Chicago Cubs visit the Cincinnati Reds for the first time this season. Here’s a preview.

The series:
Monday, 6:10 p.m.: Jeff Samardzija (0-2, 1.53 ERA) vs. Alfredo Simon (3-1, 1.30)
Tuesday, 6:10 p.m.: Edwin Jackson (1-2, 5.02) vs. Tony Cingrani (2-2, 2.86)
Wednesday, 6:10 p.m.: Carlos Villanueva (1-4, 10.42) vs. Homer Bailey (1-2, 6.15)

April record: The Cubs close out the first month of the season looking for their first series win. The last time they failed to win at least one series in April was 1997.

Samardzija: Last time on the mound for him, the bullpen blew a three-run, ninth-inning lead as the Cubs lost to the Arizona Diamondbacks 7-5. In doing so, Samardzija became the first pitcher in over 100 years to start the season by throwing five games with seven or more innings pitched while giving up two or fewer runs to not earn at least one victory, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

Who’s hot/who’s not: Starlin Castro is coming off a two-homer game in Milwaukee and a weekend full of good at-bats. He was 5-for-12 in the series, and even his outs were hit hard. Meanwhile, Junior Lake had an awful three days against the Brewers. He was 0-for-8 with five strikeouts and made several misplays in the field. His batting average is down to .206.

Jake Arrieta returns: The Cubs starter is done with his rehab stint and should be activated this week. The Cubs haven’t announced when he’ll make his first start of the season. He was slowed by a sore shoulder to start the season.

Villanueva (inexplicably) gets another start

April, 26, 2014
Apr 26
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
MILWAUKEE -- Chicago Cubs pitcher Carlos Villanueva is getting another start in the rotation despite giving up 30 hits over his last three, all losses.

“I think right now, the way everything is set up, he’s still scheduled to throw Wednesday,” manager Rick Renteria said before Saturday’s game against the Milwaukee Brewers.

Villanueva lasted five innings Friday night in a 5-2 loss. He gave up all five runs to the Brewers on 11 hits. For the season, he’s thrown 19 total innings while giving up a whopping 40 hits. His .412 batting average against is the worst in the league among anyone that’s started four or more games.

The Cubs are awaiting the return of starter Jake Arrieta from a rehab assignment -- that’s the only reason Villanueva has been starting. Arrieta is due to throw a few innings Saturday night for Double-A Tennessee before rejoining the team but he won’t be able to pitch Wednesday without going on short rest. So that’s why Villanueva and his 10.42 ERA get one more turn.

“Right now, he’s still on track,” Renteria said.

(Read full post)

Long nights for Lake, Villanueva

April, 26, 2014
Apr 26
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
MILWAUKEE – Chicago Cubs outfielder Junior Lake had a brutal game Friday night, highlighted by two strikeouts and two misplays in the first inning of the Cubs' 5-2 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers. He did no favors for starter Carlos Villanueva, who suffered the loss after giving up 11 hits in just five innings.

With a man on second and none out in the first, Brewers second baseman Scooter Gennett hit a line drive off Villanueva to left field, where Lake misplayed it into an RBI double. The next batter, Ryan Braun, singled to left, and Lake came up throwing with no chance to get Gennett at home, allowing Braun to get to second base.

“In between innings he said, ‘My bad,’” Villanueva (1-5, 10.42 ERA) recalled after the game. “He’s not trying to make a mistake. You can see he cares. If he didn’t care, he’d be getting a different kind of chat from me.”

Lake went 0-for-3 at the plate and, after his first strikeout, he broke the bat over his leg in frustration. In the next at-bat, in the seventh, he struck out looking.

Villanueva, for his part, tried to keep the night in perspective.

“You can’t be selfish, you can’t be all that,” he said. “You can’t throw your arms up in the air. You can’t show anyone up.”

Lake is going to get a long look this season as the Cubs decide if he's part of their future core -- either as a starter or role player. Nights like Friday won't help his cause.

Rapid Reaction: Brewers 5, Cubs 2

April, 25, 2014
Apr 25
Rogers By Jesse Rogers

MILWAUKEE – The Chicago Cubs lost 5-2 to the Milwaukee Brewers on Friday night. Here’s a quick look at the game:

How it happened: Milwaukee took a 2-0 lead in the first and never looked back as the Brewers peppered Cubs starter Carlos Villanueva over his five innings. The first three batters reached on hits to plate the early runs. Milwaukee added single runs in the third, fourth and fifth innings, including Lyle Overbay's first home run of the season on the 10th pitch of his fourth-inning at-bat. The Cubs scored off of Matt Garza in the third as Emilio Bonifacio drove in Ryan Sweeney, who had walked. They added a run in the seventh on a Sweeney groundout, but that’s as close as they came. Villanueva (1-5) gave up 11 hits and five runs. Anthony Rizzo was 0-for-4 with three strikeouts.

What it means: Garza got the better of the Cubs in his first game against his former team, pitching seven innings and giving up just four hits and two runs. Villanueva, on the other hand, continued a trend -- his stuff is simply getting hit hard. It didn’t help that Junior Lake made two mistakes in left field and was brutal at the plate, striking out twice. He broke his bat over his knee after one punchout. The Cubs will have to win the next two games to win their first series of the year. The odds don’t look good.

Villanueva: The right-hander has given up 40 hits in just 19 innings pitched, and he became the first Cub since Les Lancaster in 1988 to give up 30 or more hits over three consecutive starts, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Jake Arrieta is due back soon, but Villanueva actually could make one more start. It remains to be seen if he will.

Neil Ramirez debut: One of the pitchers the Cubs got in last year's trade of Garza to Texas made his major league debut, walking one and striking out one in an inning of work. Ramirez should remember his first strikeout as he got former MVP Ryan Braun on a 96 mph fastball. Braun had been 3-for-3 as had Carlos Gomez, whom Ramirez got to fly out.

What’s next: Game 2 of the series is set for Saturday at 6:10 p.m., with Travis Wood (1-2, 2.52) taking on Marco Estrada (1-1, 2.66).

Arrieta's return will give more meaning

April, 20, 2014
Apr 20
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
CHICAGO -- Much has been made of new Chicago Cubs manager Rick Renteria’s propensity to platoon players, including youngsters Mike Olt and Junior Lake. But what about the Cubs' decision to let pitcher Carlos Villanueva start the season in the rotation for the ailing Jake Arrieta?

It’s not like the Cubs are trying to figure out what they have in Villanueva. Everyone knows his game. He can start, but he’s better suited as a long reliever. His track record says so. Instead of seeing how far lefty Chris Rusin has come or giving another youngster a look, they let Villanueva start three games. He won the first one but has gotten rocked in the past two, including Sunday’s 4⅔-inning stint, in which he gave up nine hits and five runs. His ERA for the month is more than 10.

“They took advantage of runners in scoring position and drove them in,” Villanueva said of the Cincinnati Reds' two-out rallies. “They made me battle, threw over 100 pitches.”

Games like Sunday feel meaningless, at least from a pitching standpoint. Villanueva is in the last year of his deal, and following him on the mound was Jose Veras, who’s not long for the Cubs, either. He gave up two home runs in one inning of work. And if it's trade value they’re interested in, then not pitching them might be the best idea.

"He worked through it," Renteria said of Villanueva. "We tried to get him through the five [innings]."

Massaging Villanueva through five innings is of little interest to anyone not named Villanueva. Nothing against him, but every day with the Cubs should be about the future -- not the present. The good news is Arrieta is close to returning from shoulder stiffness that has kept him in the minors all month. He has one more scheduled start at Class A Daytona before he should be ready to return to the majors.

"We’ll deal with it when we cross that bridge," Renteria said.

Villanueva was more direct. He knows the writing is on the wall for him.

"When [Arrieta] comes in, I’m sure he’ll help," Villanueva said. "We all know what the plan is. It’s no major secret. If I have to go down to the bullpen I’ll keep working my butt off and try to help out there."

When Arrieta does get back into the rotation, it will give the Cubs one more meaningful thing to watch. He’s part of the group that includes Lake and Olt. Is he going to be a long-term member of the team? That’s the only question the Cubs should be asking and answering with their players these days. It gives meaning to all the losses that are piling up.

And Villanueva’s trade value might increase when he returns to his long-relief role. Should he have been there in the first place?

Series preview: Reds at Cubs

April, 18, 2014
Apr 18
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
CHICAGO -- The Chicago Cubs take on the Cincinnati Reds for the first time this season as they begin a stretch of 13 straight days of games.

The series:
• Friday, 1:20 p.m. CT: Jeff Samardzija vs. Reds' Alfredo Simon
• Saturday, 1:20 p.m. CT: Edwin Jackson vs. Reds' Tony Cingrani
• Sunday, 1:20 p.m. CT: Carlos Villanueva vs. Reds' Homer Bailey

Samardzija winless: Despite a 1.29 ERA, Friday’s starter hasn’t won a game. The Cubs finally scored some runs for Samardzija during his last start, but the bullpen blew the game before the Cubs pulled it out in the 11th inning. There is no pitcher in baseball going into the weekend with a lower ERA who doesn’t have at least one win this year.

Offensive drought: Between a rainout, off days and a doubleheader shutout sweep, the Cubs haven’t scored a run since last Sunday’s ninth inning in St. Louis. After starting the season on fire, Emilio Bonifacio has slowed down. Since getting the day off last Saturday he’s hitless in his past 13 at-bats over the course of the past three games. His batting average has dropped to .339.

Cellar fight: The Reds are just 1 1/2 games ahead of the Cubs in the standings but have won two in a row after starting the season 4-9. Joey Votto has been hot since moving to the No. 2 hole in their lineup.

Cubs' closer problems trickle down

April, 12, 2014
Apr 12
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ST. LOUIS -- Chicago Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer called the pitching problems associated with the Cubs closing situation right now, “collateral damage.” That’s because with blown saves come extra-inning games which can tax a bullpen.

Twice in the first two weeks, pitcher Jose Veras has given up a lead, sending a game (Friday night) into overtime and extending another one (in Pitt) even longer into the night. It’s added six more innings of work for the relief group and some of them have been struggling. The Cubs bullpen has a collective 4.14 ERA, that ranks 18th in baseball right now. Their three blown saves are already the most in the game as of Saturday afternoon.

That was the reason for the emergency call-up of Chris Rusin on Saturday morning. He threw five, good innings of one-run ball in relief of Carlos Villanueva -- and then was sent back down to Triple-A Iowa -- in the Cubs' 10-4 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals on Saturday afternoon.

“That was a great pick up for us today,” manager Rick Renteria said afterwards regarding Rusin saving his bullpen. “Right now we’re just happy he was able to give us the (five) innings that he did.”

He helped save a bullpen that Veras has thrown into flux, though Renteria hasn’t been using everyone equally. Lefty Wesley Wright hasn’t pitched since April 4 while Rusin threw five innings the day he was called up.

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Starlin Castro
.292 14 65 58
HRA. Rizzo 32
RBIA. Rizzo 78
RA. Rizzo 89
OPSA. Rizzo .913
WJ. Arrieta 10
ERAT. Wood 5.03
SOJ. Arrieta 167