Notes: Villanueva eyes Cubs turnaround

MESA, Ariz. -- Carlos Villanueva has become somewhat of a de facto leader on the Chicago Cubs as the pitcher enters his free-agent season after a respectable first year in Chicago (7-8, 4.06 ERA) in which he started 15 games for the Cubs and relieved in 32.

A good first half for him in 2014 could mean he'll be gone by the trade deadline, but he’d rather see things turn around in Chicago -- a very long shot before his contract expires in about seven months.

“Especially coming from where we came last year, being able to ride it out with this team and compete would be great,” Villanueva said Wednesday morning. “And enjoy shutting a couple of mouths out there that kind of kick us a little bit when we’re down. That would be the ultimate satisfaction.”

Villanueva wasn’t referring to anyone in particular but he knows the “lovable losers” tag that applies to the Cubs.

“Everybody is sick of it,” he said. “It’s hard to be motivated at that point (when out of it). You hate it when it comes to personal statistics. The one thing you play for is being a spoiler but everyone gets tired of being a spoiler.

“You don’t understand what it is to play as a team and play together until you’re pushing for a playoff spot. When you’re in that run no one cares about home runs or strikeouts. If you struck out four times but made a defensive play, no one cares about the strikeouts because we’re one game closer to the playoffs. There’s no match for that. I’ve been in the playoffs once and I’m dying to go back.”

He might get that chance, but for another team. The Cubs have made a habit of flipping any veteran who’s on the last year of his deal. Nate Schierholtz, Jose Veras and Villanueva are part of that group this year.

“The bittersweet part would be leaving this organization which I feel very comfortable in now,” Villanueva said. “It takes me a while to get to a place where I can be myself. My normal, loud self.”

Villanueva has a personality teammates like. Last year they made T-shirts with his likeness on the front -- down to his particular facial hair -- including a word balloon with the phrase “I mean” on it. He says it a lot.

“If I was on other teams I probably wouldn’t say anything. But I’m saying it here,” Villanueva stated. “It’s not a secret I like it here. And they like me here too.”

His new manager Rick Renteria added: “Every team has players that people gravitate to because they feel they have a certain amount of trust with them. Villanueva has been around. Guys like him, they know him. He’s someone they can talk to.”

Villanueva will stretch out again to prepare as a starter but he knows he’ll probably end up as a reliever. He’s used to bouncing back and forth as he realized long ago he isn’t going to wow anyone with his stuff -- according to ESPN Stats and Info he threw 14 pitches under 70 mph last year, including three under 60. Winning is more important than anything.

“I work out with Freddy Garcia and he told me what it was like when he won it with the White Sox (in 2005) ,” Villanueva said. He tells me every time he comes back they treat him like a hero. It’s not even fun to have a winning season and still not make it to the playoffs. It’s about the postseason.”

The odds are against the Cubs doing that in 2014, just like the odds are against Villanueva finishing the season with them.

“You can only dream,” he says of winning in Chicago. “But if I get a call then I guess I have to pick up and leave.”

Opening Day starter: Renteria hasn’t named his Opening Day starter yet and didn’t give a timetable for doing so.

“We’ll just let camp continue to play out and make sure we’re going through everything healthy,” he said.

Last season Jeff Samardzija was an obvious choice for opening day with Matt Garza injured at the time. This time around it’s between him and Travis Wood. Based on 2013, Wood deserves it.

Baseball America prospect ranking: Baseball America released its annual prospect rankings and the Cubs have five players in the top 50.

“The public perception and the reality of what we’re seeing out there is legitimate,” Renteria said. “It’s something the organization should be proud of.”

Javier Baez (5) and Kris Bryant (8) are joined by C.J. Edwards (28), Albert Almora (36) and Jorge Soler (41) in the top 50. Pitcher Pierce Johnson (87) and infielder Arismendy Alcantara (100) round out the Cubs in the top 100.