Three weeks into the season, Carlos Villanueva has not had a lot to do for the St. Louis Cardinals. Villanueva's role is one of long reliever, and with the rotation pitching very well thus far, manager Mike Matheny has not given him very many opportunities. Right now, the role of long reliever for the Cardinals appears to be one that receives appearances only if the game looks out of reach or the it goes into extra innings. As a result, Villanueva has only pitched three of the first 13 games and only pitched 4 2/3 innings on the season. With the Cardinals employing Randy Choate as a LOOGY and the rotation down the innings of Wainwright, Villanueva must be a more prominent option coming out of the bullpen to prevent both the rotation and the bullpen from being worn down.
Last week, Ben asked Is the St. Louis Cardinals' reliever usage pace sustainable? The answer was pretty much a clear no.
It's extremely early in the year, but so far Matheny has employed a bullpen strategy that sees him call on multiple relievers an inning while playing the matchups. When coupled with the low-scoring environment, a number of close games, and his devotion to fixed bullpen roles, this has caused him to lean heavily on Seth Maness, Kevin Siegrist, Walden, and Rosenthal. Matheny won't be able to rely on that quartet as much as he has so far in April over the course of the 162-game season. Something will need to change with respect to the bullpen: usage or composition.
Ben mentioned Villanueva's lack of playing time, as well as the days off early on in the season. Solid starting pitching has limited the Cardinals' bullpen usage. The Cardinals 49 1/3 innings pitched out of the bullpen is the lowest in the majors. With Wainwright out for the year, Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez likely to be on some sort of innings cap, and unknown production from the fifth starter, the bullpen usage cannot keep going like it has been and the simplest solution is to give Villanueva a lot more innings.
Every appearance is magnified early in the season, and we can sometimes draw unwarranted conclusions based on a few early-season appearances. Villanueva did allow the winning runs in extra innings against the Nationals giving up a homer run to Yunel Escobar, and he did walk three against Cincinnati in two innings as the team won the game in extra innings, but drawing any conclusions as to how good or bad Villanueva is based on three performances is a mistake. Viallanueva's rest of the season projections from FanGraphs are still decent with a 3.99 ERA and 3.74 FIP from ZiPS and a 3.43 ERA and 3.54 FIP from Steamer. Villanueva has not pitched much so far this season, but his heas pitched in very difference circumstances, twice appearing in extra inning games and once when the team was down by four.
It does seem somewhat odd to carry a pitcher whose only role is to pitch rarely, either in the least important situations or the most important situations and none in between. This is clearly a Mike Matheny preference, as he wants a pitcher to have on the sidelines just in case the game goes in to extras. He had the same preference last season and kept Michael Wacha out until that one time when everybody thought it was a terrible idea to bring him in. In theory, that is something that maybe could have worked in the playoffs if utilized a little bit differently, but it cannot work in the regular season unless the goal is to burn out the relievers by July and ensure the starters blow by any innings caps in September.
Right now, the Cardinals are carrying an extra reliever in Mitch Harris without hurting the number of bench players they have as Wainwright's spot on the disabled list has the Cardinals carrying just four starters. Carrying an extra reliever should not be the plan too much longer as injuries to Randal Grichuk and the day-to-day availability of Yadier Molina and Jason Heyward have hurt the bench that the Cardinals opened the season with. The Cardinals look to be heading towards a bullpen of Trevor Rosenthal, Jordan Walden, Seth Maness, Kevin Siegrist, Matt Belisle, Randy Choate, and Carlos Villanueva. Mike Matheny has done a better job deploying Choate this year, but that also means they are close to down a pitcher in terms of injuries. The team cannot afford to be down effectively two pitchers with Villanueva only pitching sparingly.
Carlos Villanueva is on pace to pitch in 27 games and hit about 42 innings. With the situation the Cardinals have found themselves in, that could easily double. The Cardinals need to stop worrying about what will happen if the game gets into extra innings. If a starter looks shaky at all, Villanueva needs to be coming in during the fifth or sixth and pitching a couple innings, regardless of whether the game is close or a blowout. He should be pitching in the seventh inning occasionally. The Cardinals are coming up against an innings shortage on the pitching staff and they need to be more creative in the ways those innings are divided up. Carlos Villanueva needs a bigger role.