PHOENIX – The next edition of Carlos Villanueva T-shirts could simply say “I Just Work Here” across the front. The back would list all his canned responses to the inevitable questions in spring training.
This will be Villanueva’s ninth season in the big leagues, and he figured he’s been asked about the bullpen/rotation squeeze in six camps. His entertaining postgame press conferences inside the Wrigley Field interview room/dungeon inspired the Cubs to make “Villa’s Top Ten” catchphrases last year. The gray T-shirts show his image at the microphone, beginning his thoughts with “I mean…”
“This year we’ll pick a light blue – Cubbie blue,” Villanueva said. “Try to keep it a little light on the back. I already told the boys (to keep it clean).”
The boys clearly get a kick out of Villanueva, who will saunter into the clubhouse wearing sunglasses, high-fiving a teammate, bowing to a coach, checking in with the Latin players and zinging whoever crosses his path.
The Most Interesting Swingman in the World has a sweet handlebar mustache, a spot on the Major League Baseball Players Association’s executive board and no interest in joining Twitter.
“I don’t want to say I hate Twitter,” Villanueva said, “because it does a lot of good, too. But I’m not a big fan.
“I’m very emotional. I don’t want to say something stupid and then I can’t take it back. You can’t delete it. Once it’s out there, somebody’s taking a snapshot. So I’m sure I’ll be one of those guys that says something ridiculously stupid and I’ll be on ‘SportsCenter’ for the wrong reason.
“You know what, I’m good. I’ll talk to you guys (in the media) the next day and have an idea of what I want to say and then it looks prettier.”
Villanueva will have something to say after Monday night’s start against the San Diego Padres at Cubs Park. In a camp without much drama or controversy, we’re left with a fifth-starter decision that will come down to Villanueva or Chris Rusin, the 27-year-old lefty who’s spent parts of the last three years at Triple-A Iowa.
“In the old-school way, guys were a little more upset about a guy maybe trying to take their job,” Villanueva said. “It’s how it was when I came up. It seemed like the older guys were meaner back then. You’re coming in to take their job and they didn’t appreciate that.
“I love Rusin. He’s a great kid. He’s quiet. He does his work. It’s not his fault. It’s not my fault. We’re here to compete and we’re here to help this team.
“He doesn’t have that personality where he’s going to be selfish about it. Obviously, he wants to start, and I want to do it, too. But in the end, it’s out of our hands.
“I’ll talk to him, try to keep him calm, (tell him) don’t dwell on it too much. Maybe I’ve done that in the past and it doesn’t help. You can’t worry it away. Whatever I can do to help the boys, I’m in.”
Villanueva grew up in the Dominican Republic and went to a bilingual high school in Santo Domingo, taking classes in English literature and U.S. government. His father was a civil engineer who built bridges and worked for Chiquita International in Panama.
Villanueva moves easily among the different groups in the clubhouse. In the same way the Cubs identified Rick Renteria’s bilingual background when hiring a manager, maybe Villanueva’s personality could be a valuable part of a future built around Javier Baez and Albert Almora.
Villanueva’s versatility will also make him a trade target – the Cubs got hits on him leading up to last year’s deadline. He signed a two-year, $10 million deal last winter, with the expectation that he would get opportunities to start.
“I mean, it’s been a couple of years of answering it,” Villanueva said. “It’s exciting. It’s a competition. It brings out the best in guys. I’ve said it before on my end – whatever they need me to do, I’ll do. Hopefully, I’m showing again that I can do anything that they ask me to do.”
Villanueva stepped in for the injured Matt Garza last season, posting a 2.29 ERA in five April starts. He wound up appearing in 47 games, finishing at 7-8 with a 4.06 ERA overall and those T-shirts that Edwin Jackson, Jeff Samardzija and the rest of his buddies still wear around the clubhouse.
As Villanueva likes to say: “I’m an employee here.”
“We’re all in this together,” Villanueva said. “In the end, we still root for each other. Whoever they decide – that part is out of our control. You just go out there, pitch and tip your hat to whoever wins the battle.”