Arrieta's return will give more meaning

CHICAGO -- Much has been made of new Chicago Cubs manager Rick Renteria’s propensity to platoon players, including youngsters Mike Olt and Junior Lake. But what about the Cubs' decision to let pitcher Carlos Villanueva start the season in the rotation for the ailing Jake Arrieta?

It’s not like the Cubs are trying to figure out what they have in Villanueva. Everyone knows his game. He can start, but he’s better suited as a long reliever. His track record says so. Instead of seeing how far lefty Chris Rusin has come or giving another youngster a look, they let Villanueva start three games. He won the first one but has gotten rocked in the past two, including Sunday’s 4⅔-inning stint, in which he gave up nine hits and five runs. His ERA for the month is more than 10.

“They took advantage of runners in scoring position and drove them in,” Villanueva said of the Cincinnati Reds' two-out rallies. “They made me battle, threw over 100 pitches.”

Games like Sunday feel meaningless, at least from a pitching standpoint. Villanueva is in the last year of his deal, and following him on the mound was Jose Veras, who’s not long for the Cubs, either. He gave up two home runs in one inning of work. And if it's trade value they’re interested in, then not pitching them might be the best idea.

"He worked through it," Renteria said of Villanueva. "We tried to get him through the five [innings]."

Massaging Villanueva through five innings is of little interest to anyone not named Villanueva. Nothing against him, but every day with the Cubs should be about the future -- not the present. The good news is Arrieta is close to returning from shoulder stiffness that has kept him in the minors all month. He has one more scheduled start at Class A Daytona before he should be ready to return to the majors.

"We’ll deal with it when we cross that bridge," Renteria said.

Villanueva was more direct. He knows the writing is on the wall for him.

"When [Arrieta] comes in, I’m sure he’ll help," Villanueva said. "We all know what the plan is. It’s no major secret. If I have to go down to the bullpen I’ll keep working my butt off and try to help out there."

When Arrieta does get back into the rotation, it will give the Cubs one more meaningful thing to watch. He’s part of the group that includes Lake and Olt. Is he going to be a long-term member of the team? That’s the only question the Cubs should be asking and answering with their players these days. It gives meaning to all the losses that are piling up.

And Villanueva’s trade value might increase when he returns to his long-relief role. Should he have been there in the first place?