Brewers to build Villanueva's stamina
Right-hander will get a start Sunday before returning to relief role
TUCSON, Ariz. -- The forecast for Ken Macha's bullpen might be a bit gloomy these days, but if Carlos Villanueva begins to pitch better this spring, some rays of sunlight might sneak through by the time camp breaks.
That's why the Brewers manager sat down early Wednesday with pitching coach Bill Castro to come up with a new spring game plan for the right-hander, who was projected to be counted on as an eighth-inning setup bridge to closer Trevor Hoffman.
Villanueva, the 25-year-old right-hander who prepared last spring to be a starter and made nine starts before finding his niche in the bullpen and going 2-2 with a 2.12 ERA in 38 appearances there, will go back to starting, for one game at least.
Macha said Villanueva, who's 0-1 with an 8.64 ERA this spring, will take the ball at Maryvale Baseball Park against the San Francisco Giants on Sunday and pitch three innings. After that, he'll return to one-inning stints for the remainder of the Cactus League schedule.
Jeff Suppan, who normally would start that day, will either pitch in a Minor League game or a simulated game, Macha said.
"Villanueva's been accustomed to preparing to start, so we're thinking that getting a start and building up his arm strength will help him," Macha said. "To me, mentally, he was a starter. So after that three-inning start is done, we'll start chopping him down to one-inning stints.
"Physically, he's fine. He just needs to build up a little bit. ... I hope I'm not putting any pressure on him. He's had some success here in the big leagues. He should understand that he, out of anybody, is someone we're going to rely on."
Macha said the major concern all spring for Villanueva has been the fact that hitters are having extended at-bats against him.
"He's got to get his put-away [pitch] in place," Macha said. "His game is his changeup and controlling bat speeds."
Meanwhile, the Brewers continue to struggle to control the designation of concrete bullpen roles because Hoffman is out with a strained oblique muscle that Macha described Wednesday as "getting incrementally better, little by little."
Hoffman, 41, did pliometric throwing Tuesday but, according to Macha, "the outlook is still the same."
"We only have so many options right now," Macha said of the closing role. "Villanueva has not had a good spring. [Jorge] Julio has saved games before, but he hasn't had a good spring. [David] Riske's coming off elbow surgery.
"Nobody has jumped out and said, 'OK, I'm going to be the guy.'"
Macha said the pitcher closest to doing that has been right-hander Seth McClung, although McClung has a spring ERA of 11.57 in two appearances.
"He's started games and saved games," Macha said. "And he's probably throwing the ball better than anybody."
Julio helped his cause with a strong inning Wednesday, pitching a scoreless ninth with a strikeout to notch the save and impressing Macha with a lively fastball and a darting changeup.
Still, there would be no substitute for having the all-time Major League leader in saves backing up the bullpen, no matter how unlikely that might seem as the last three weeks before Opening Day fly by.
"If Hoffman could pitch next week, for example, that would clear up everything," Macha said.
"Right now, we're a little cloudy."
Doug Miller is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.