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After rocky season, Villanueva has unclear future

TORONTO -- Carlos Villanueva heads into the most important offseason of his career with more questions than answers.

Toronto's right-hander believes a pair of stints as a starter over the past two years has proven he should be given a full-time role. But it's the way each of those previous opportunities came to an end that has provided ammunition for the skeptics.

Villanueva spent a large portion of the 2012 campaign as one of the Blue Jays' most reliable starters until his second consecutive late-season swoon derailed the impressive numbers. The fallout could ultimately limit his options this winter.

"I'm comfortable. When the season started, obviously we were in different circumstances," the soon-to-be free agent recently said when looking back on the past year. "I had an opportunity in the middle of the season and I feel like I took advantage of it. Hopefully I will get a chance to start.

"I have trust in my agent that he is going to do a good job with the situation. For me, I worry about the part that I can control which is going out here and prepare myself and do the best I can."

Villanueva began the year working out of the bullpen, but was eventually pressed into starting duties in late June because of an injury-riddled staff. He responded to the move with relative ease and almost immediately became a solidifying force to an otherwise erratic rotation.

The 28-year-old Villanueva went 5-4 with a sparkling 3.03 ERA while striking out 65 batters during his first 11 starts. With each passing outing, there seemed to be more public pressure applied on the Blue Jays to open contract negotiations with the pending free agent.

General manager Alex Anthopoulos somewhat distanced himself from a potential extension when he went public with questions over Villanueva's durability in late August. Anthopoulos couldn't help but look back to the 2011 season when Villanueva similarly started off strong in the rotation (3.67 ERA in nine starts) before struggling (9.31 ERA in final four starts) and succumbing to injury.

It also was all but impossible for Anthopoulos to ignore that prior to 2012, Villanueva had never thrown more than 115 innings or made more than 13 starts in a season.

"There's no question when he's taken the ball he's done a great job," Anthopoulos said at the time. "But his [durability] is obviously part of the equation. That's not to take anything away from him. But that's the unknown with Carlos. He's never had 200 innings, he's never had 32 or 34 starts.

"I think we all would say you love what you see, what he's done for us and he's a great teammate and all those things. But again, we've only had bits and pieces of him starting."

Villanueva didn't take kindly to the apparent skepticism being raised publicly and contract talks never appeared to get off the ground. Not long after, Villanueva went into a tailspin and posted an 8.10 ERA over his final five starts while surrendering 10 home runs in the process.

The late-season struggles appeared to support Anthopoulos' previous concerns. If Villanueva's performance started going down around the 10-start mark, then it would be hard to justify paying him to make upwards of 35 in one season.

Villanueva acknowledges the results, but notes there is a difference between the way his time as a starter ended in each of the past two years. In 2011, Villanueva suffered a right forearm injury, but attempted to pitch through the pain and as a result his overall numbers suffered.

This year, Villanueva said he still felt fine at the end of the year despite surrendering seven runs to Tampa Bay and six runs to Baltimore in his final two starts. Villanueva believes it was really only the outing vs. the Rays where he didn't have his pure stuff on the mound.

"That day in Tampa, I just had nothing, threw meatballs out there," Villanueva said of the 2 1/3-innings outing. "In Baltimore, the way I see it, I had good stuff that day. I thought I had a live fastball and my breaking balls were good. I was one pitch away from not having to answer any questions like this. It doesn't always come out the way you script.

"It's disappointing because you don't want to finish that way, but in hindsight I look at the body of work of the whole season. I'm proud of what I was able to accomplish and I'm very fortunate for the opportunity and support everyone provided -- the fans, the organization, you guys. I'm satisfied."

Villanueva will now test free agency for the first time in his career. After making $2.28 million in 2012, he'll be looking for both a raise and ideally a multi-year contract. Just as important will be an opportunity to prove his doubters wrong by getting the opportunity to start over the course of a full season.

As the year came to a close in late September, it seemed inevitable that Villanueva and the Blue Jays would be parting ways. During a game against the Yankees on Sept. 30, the Toronto players went onto the field during a break in play to tip their caps in gratitude of the hometown fans.

Some players quickly went back into the dugout, but it was Villanueva who lingered, who seemed to savor the moment as if it could be one of his last in a Blue Jays uniform.

"The fans here, I want to reiterate, they came out this year, better than last year," Villanueva said. "I think about it, it might be one of my last times I go here and give thanks to the fans.

"We play this game for the fans and I think a lot of us forget that sometimes because it's a long and grinding season. But the fact that they still came out even though we didn't have a very good season shows a lot and shows what they were expecting out of us. I hope they continue to show that support because I think this team is heading in the right direction."

Toronto Blue Jays, Carlos Villanueva