On Jan. 4, the Detroit Tigers decided to shut down relief pitcher Brayan Villarreal until spring training because of inflammation in his throwing elbow.
This is the right choice by Detroit, because the Tigers will need Villarreal this season.
After throwing three scoreless innings in Venezuela, the 25-year-old right-hander complained about elbow soreness and was sent back to the U.S. for evaluation. Tests revealed no structural damage, but Villarreal does have inflammation in his throwing elbow for the second time in his short career.
The Tigers, who left Villarreal off the World Series roster last season, wanted him to throw about 15 innings in Venezuela this winter, but are taking the safe route and shutting him down until at least March.
The layoff might stunt Villarreal's progression in his third major league season, but ultimately, it will pay off for the Tigers.
Villarreal gave up 38 hits over 54.2 innings last season, earning a 2.63 ERA and a .201 opponent average. He earned 66 strikeouts a year ago, which was second-best among Tiger relievers, behind only Joaquin Benoit.
The Tigers will field primarily the same bullpen in 2013 as they did last season, swapping rookie Bruce Rondon for Jose Valverde at closer.
Detroit only has two relievers older than 30. And with such a young bullpen and an unproven rookie closer, it can't afford to lose one of its best, hardest-throwing relievers.
While Rondon's consistency remains to be seen, chances are that the 21-year-old rookie will suffer some growing pains this season, which could force some juggling of roles in the bullpen. Detroit needs Villarreal to be 100 percent healthy this season just in case Rondon fares worse than the Tigers' front office expects and other relievers are thrust into more prominent roles.
If Rondon struggles, the Tigers could use a closer-by-committee plan, which could mean that Villarreal would be forced into a setup role, seeing crucial time in the seventh and eighth inning.
Villarreal will be shut down for around six to eight weeks and should come back in time to shake the rust off and have a productive spring. He'll need to have a productive spring and no looming elbow issues so he can dedicate all of his time doing everything he can to help the Tigers get back to the World Series.