With Cubs, Villanueva's career comes full circle
Chicago first club to see righty pitch, but he originally signed with Milwaukee
MESA, Ariz. -- When Carlos Villanueva was a teenager, he was playing baseball in the Dominican Republic, and his manager happened to run into Sammy Sosa, who was with the Cubs at that time. Sosa asked if there was anything he could do for the manager, and he mentioned the young pitcher.
"He said, 'I have this kid, and if you see him, can you help him out, get him signed or something?'" Villanueva said, retelling the story. "Sammy saw me throw a bullpen and he said, 'Do you have your visa, can you travel?' He said, 'When I leave for Spring Training in a couple weeks, I'll show you to the Cubs people.'
"I'm like, 'Yeah, right,'" Villanueva said, admitting he didn't get his hopes up.
But a couple of days later, Villanueva got a call, and the youngster was headed to Mesa, Ariz.
"The Cubs saw me here in '01," Villanueva said of Fitch Park, the team's Minor League facility, which they are vacating after this season. "Jim Hendry wasn't the general manager yet -- he had another job with the team -- but he saw me. I was just starting to pitch. I'd been an infielder.
"I remember they took me to one of the games, and I remember sitting next to Kerry Wood in the dugout," Villanueva said. "Kerry Wood back then was a young phenom. I'm like, 'I can't believe I"m sitting next to Kerry Wood.'"
Villanueva signed one year later, but ended up signing with the Giants, not the Cubs. Now, he's in the Cubs' system, joining the team this offseason when he signed a two-year, $10 million contract in January.
"For me, they're the first team that ever saw me, and I guess everything comes back in a circle," he said.
The trip to Mesa wasn't his first to the U.S. from the Dominican, but it was the first time he was on his own. He stayed at the same hotel the club's other Minor League players did.
"For me, it was a little overwhelming coming by myself and seeing all these professional guys," Villanueva said. "I remember, I got to face a couple guys -- I don't remember who they were. It's definitely an experience coming back now, 12, 13 years later. I'm here, I'm glad I'm here."
So are the Cubs. The right-hander could be a valuable piece in the bullpen this season, even though he'd prefer to be in Chicago's rotation.
"I'm a starter and I've always seen myself as a starter," Villanueva said. "I think when given the opportunity to start, I think I've handled myself well."
He'll start the third Cactus League game on Monday when the Cubs face the Dodgers. He has prepared for a long season and lots of innings.
|"For me, it was a little overwhelming coming by myself and seeing all these professional guys. I remember, I got to face a couple guys -- I don't remember who they were. It's definitely an experience coming back now, 12, 13 years later. I'm here, I'm glad I'm here."|
|-- Carlos Villanueva|
"How those innings come in the end will be determined by performance, by health and not only by me but other guys, too," he said.
For example, the Cubs aren't exactly sure about Matt Garza's timetable after he had to cut short a throwing session because of a strained left lat.
"I'm not going to dwell on it, and I know I'm going to have to talk about it a lot even if I don't want to," Villanueva said about wanting to start. "It is what it is. It would be nice to come in one year and know exactly the role, but some guys like Felix Hernandez get paid the largest contract in history and some guys have to battle it out."
Cubs manager Dale Sveum appreciated Villanueva's enthusiasm, but also noted that the pitcher has never totaled 200 innings in a season (he did reach a career-high 125 innings last year with the Blue Jays). The good news is the right-hander has adjusted his work ethic.
"When I saw him in the clubhouse here, it was a completely different body than I saw in Milwaukee," Sveum said. "He's learned how to prepare himself and train for 200 innings. He's always been very durable. He's always been placed in situations as the long guy."
What Villanueva, 29, did was tackle an offseason program, and went from a heavy 238 pounds to 205. Now, his ideal pitching weight is 210.
Villanueva and Sveum have a good relationship from their days with the Brewers.
"He was there for the first inning I threw way back in '06 and he saw me grow," Villanueva said. "One of the things he said was he was happy and proud of the way I matured over the years. Everybody always loved Dale over there. I remember in 2008 when he was pressed into managing in the end, it was the only time I was in the playoffs, and you have a good memory of that year.
"Everybody was dying to have him back as a manager the next year," Villanueva said. "Things happen and the front office brought in Ken Macha. We were rooting for him to be at the helm because we really enjoyed him and really enjoyed the relationship we had with him. The fact that he's here and [pitching coach Chris] Bosio is here and guys I've known for a while, it definitely made my decision easier to come to."
Villanueva did talk to Sveum a couple of times before he signed.
"It wasn't that he was trying to sell me the team but it was having conversations," Villanueva said. "In the end, all signs pointed to coming here."
Now, he'd just like to convince a team that he can start. He likes the routine.
"It's just control of the game from the first pitch," Villanueva said. "It's being able to prepare in the way I prepare, watch my videos, and know exactly what I want to do to every hitter three times, four times in the lineup. I enjoy that. Last year, I got a little more maturity, and being in the [American League] East, you learn some new tricks and use them out there as best you can. It's just something I've always done."
He's not going to pout if he's in the bullpen.
"I haven't before and I have no reason to do it now," he said. "I'll handle things like a professional. You won't see me complain, and if I do, it'll be behind closed doors."
That's part of what makes Villanueva appealing to the Cubs.
"He's that guy -- you never worried about him," Sveum said. "He's going to throw strikes, he was going to throw strikes with his breaking ball, he was going to get back in counts with his breaking ball. He was always one of those guys who you leave alone because his athletic ability on the mound was enough to make pitches. When he learned how to use his fastball, he got much better. He's one of those guys you don't have to mess around with."
Villanueva did have one more encounter with Sosa, facing the slugger when he was with the Rangers. Villanueva struck him out.
"I got him," Villanueva said. "It was a high slider, 3-2, and called it. [Umpire] C.B. Bucknor called it. It was probably a ball, but I'll take it."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.