January 2nd, 2013

Villarreal shut down from winter ball

After vacation time (except for a day to cover the Anibal Sanchez signing), then holiday time, I’m back on the beat, which means I’m catching up on some of the things that happened while I was off. There’s a lot of stuff, but one that didn’t get a lot of attention was an elbow scare for Brayan Villarreal. Thanks to eltigrevenezolano for pointing it out in the comments section on the last post.

The Tigers had Villarreal pitch winter ball in his native Venezuela with the idea of getting him about 15 innings of work, all in relief. It would be just enough to get him to work on some things and get some early preparation for spring training, but not enough to really tax him.

Vilarreal joined the Caribes de Anzoategui in early December and pitching in three games, pitching three scoreless innings on one hit with a run and a strikeout. He complained about some arm problems in mid-December and was sent back to the U.S. to have his elbow checked out, according to the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal. The tests reportedly revealed inflammation, but no structural damage.

The Tigers confirmed he was checked out but showed nothing serious. While Villarreal was reportedly was expected to be sidelined until January, word from the Tigers was that they reached an agreement with Villarreal to shut him down for the rest of the winter and have him get ready for spring training, rather than have him return cold for the Venezuelan playoffs.

If elbow inflammation sounds familiar for Villarreal, that’s because he was diagnosed with the same thing in August after some discomfort. He returned from that scare after six days and picked up where he left off with some very good outings, but then struggled through September before being left off the postseason roster.

Considering how well Villarreal pitched when he was at his best during the summer, it’s hard to overestimate how important he is to the 2013 bullpen as it’s currently constructed. He isn’t viewed as a closer in the making, not now anyway, but he has the stuff to play a big role in the later innings, especially if someone else from the setup ranks steps up to close. On a team that didn’t have a consistent lefty reliever, Villarreal held left-handed hitters to a .190 batting average (12-for-63, 19 walks, 18 strikeouts). If he corrals his stuff like Fernando Rodney eventually did, he has tremendous capability. But of course, he can’t do it if he’s hurt, which is why the Tigers are watching him closely.