MESA, Ariz. — Jeff Samardzija is the Opening Day starter with the power-pitching arsenal and the coast-to-coast attention going into his lame-duck season.
Travis Wood is the All-Star.
But, pitching coach Chris Bosio says, ‘‘The wild card in this thing is Villanueva.’’
Carlos Villanueva, the funk-throwing swingman — the guy who wanted a chance to make 30 starts when he talked to teams as a free agent a winter ago — is the guy who holds the pieces of the Cubs’ pitching staff together almost as firmly as the wax holds the ends of his handlebar mustache Rollie Fingers-perfect through another three innings in Arizona.
The Cubs aren’t exactly printing playoff tickets with or without Villanueva.
But if he can do anything this April like he did in a similar fill-in rotation role last year, he’ll help keep the bullpen healthy and fresh — and maybe even enhance his own value during a contract year.
He averaged 6 2/3 innings in eight starts for the injured Matt Garza early last season, allowing only five runs in his first four starts and finishing at 3.93 for the stretch. This time, he’s expected to open in the rotation while fifth starter Jake Arrieta builds strength after a shoulder issue.
‘‘The start he got off to last year in his first eight starts was invaluable for us,’’ Bosio said. ‘‘I think his strength is pitching out of the bullpen, keeping the game close [in middle and long relief]. . . . But he’s savvy. He knows how to pitch. He knows how to prepare.’’
He knows all of that. And appreciates the faith his bosses have in him, he says — even if he’s still looking for that long-term starting role.
‘‘I didn’t set out to be that guy, but it’s worked out real well for me,’’ Villanueva, 30, said. ‘‘It’s something I feel comfortable with. I wasn’t blessed maybe with a blazing fastball, but I’ve been blessed with a healthy arm, knock on wood.’’
It has allowed him to pitch one inning for four straight days or three innings one day and bounce back quickly for two more a couple days later — ‘‘or throw 75 pitches out of the blue,’’ he says.
‘‘If I’m a manager one day, or a pitching coach, I want a guy like that,’’ he said. ‘‘One or two guys like that, actually.’’
Villanueva is only with the Cubs because of his relationship with former manager Dale Sveum that helped persuade him of the opportunity he’d get in Chicago.
He says he’s made it clear to the front office even since Sveum’s firing how much he wants to stay and be part of what president Theo Epstein’s staff is building.
But he also understands a business side that could make his versatility, savvy and modest $5 million salary a valuable trading chip in July once he has helped bridge another injury gap on the pitching staff.
‘‘It’s always a possibility, and wouldn’t surprise me at all,’’ he said. ‘‘I get it. I could be here talking to you today, and I could be out of here tomorrow. And there will never be ill feelings against anybody. If they can make the team better by trading me, then I’ll always wish them all the best.’’
Until then, he’ll try to keep showing they’re better off keeping him — and maybe that they’re better off keeping him in the rotation if he can get off to another good start.
‘‘I understand there are reliever statistics that show I’m better in that role,’’ said Villanueva, who was 6-1 with a 3.03 ERA in 32 relief appearances last year (1-7, 4.50 in 15 starts). ‘‘But I think I can help, maybe equally, in both roles.
‘‘Ultimately, whatever they decide, I’ll be good with it. I may not be happy about it. If I’m not happy, I’ll voice my displeasure behind closed doors like I’ve always done.’’
It’s all about the team, he said.
Besides, he might be on track to get those 30 starts — he just didn’t envision it would take both years of his deal to get them.
‘‘If you ask me, would I rather be a starter? Yeah, I’d like to start,’’ he said. ‘‘But it’s an undeniable fact that I’ve done a good job in the versatile role, and if that’s what they have in mind again, then I’ll the best I can.
‘‘It’s not always what you want or what you like; it’s what the team needs, and that’s what a lot of players in our sport don’t understand. . . . I bet there’s a million guys that want to do the job that I do.’’