Veras settling in as closer, mentor
Right-hander gives Cubs experience in ninth inning, leadership in clubhouse
MESA, Ariz. -- Jose Veras didn't waste any time getting to know his new Cubs teammates, which doesn't surprise anyone who has played with the right-hander.
"[Veras] said, 'I tried to call you when I signed because I wanted to talk to my catcher and communicate right away and tell you what I like, what I don't like,'" catcher Welington Castillo said of the Cubs' new closer, who signed a one-year, $4 million contract on Dec. 18.
"He seems like he's open to everybody," Castillo said. "I like him. I like his attitude."
So does Cubs pitcher Carlos Villanueva, who lives about five minutes from Veras in the Miami area.
"He's a good guy and a great acquisition for us," said Villanueva, who talked to Veras before he signed with the Cubs.
Chicago entered the offseason in search of a closer after a roller-coaster ride in 2013. Carlos Marmol had the job, but lost it one week into the season and Kyuji Fujikawa took over. However, the Japanese pitcher had issues with his right forearm and had to go on the disabled list. After a brief turn with Marmol again, the Cubs signed Kevin Gregg on April 14, 11 days after he was released by the Dodgers. Fujikawa needed Tommy John surgery on his right elbow in June, Marmol was eventually traded and Gregg finished with 38 saves.
Now, it's Veras' job. The right-hander began last season as the Astros' closer before he was traded to the Tigers and used as a setup pitcher. He's pitched for the Yankees (2006-09), the Indians ('09), the Marlins ('10), the Pirates ('11) and the Brewers ('12) as well as the Astros and Tigers.
Veras, 33, has made a smooth transition so far. The younger Latin pitchers gravitate to him, including Hector Rondon, who was a teammate with the Indians. A Rule 5 Draft pick by the Cubs last season, Rondon makes sure to bring bottles of water to Veras and others during workouts. And Veras returns the favor.
"He's almost like a big brother because we knew each other before," Rondon said. "We say that all day -- 'I'll bring you water, I'll bring you something.' He takes care of everybody. He's our papa."
Veras doesn't see himself as a patriarch but just as one of the guys.
"This is a family," Veras said. "We like to be together, playing around. We came here with no mom, no wife, no kids, no brothers. We are brothers. This is my family. I spend most of the time in the day here. We're starting to find out what we like, what we don't like, and get an opinion between us, what is better, and then you start to know things they don't know. This is a family."
Being a good mentor is something Astros manager Bo Porter noticed about Veras.
"We brought him in here for this very reason -- to have a guy that has experience pitching in the back end that can close out games for you and at the same time be a positive influence in the clubhouse," Porter said last May.
"He didn't know anybody when he got here," Castillo said, "and you can see he's one of those guys who, if you're alone, he'll say, 'What's happening?' and start talking. I like him."
Villanueva has known Veras at least 20 years. The two trained at the Olympic Center in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic.
"He's had a long career to get here," Villanueva said of Veras, who signed his first pro contract in 1998 with the Rays. "I never thought we'd play on the same team together and here we are. We have a very, very good relationship."
Villanueva, 30, was the one whom the young Latin players looked up to last season with the Cubs.
"We spoke about that, too, when he signed," Villanueva said about being a mentor. "I said, 'I did it last year, but I'm like a parent who works a lot and has to travel a lot.' I'll be starting, I'll be in the bullpen, so I can't really be there all the time.
"It's not that they need that attention, but it's good to have," Villanueva said. "A guy with his experience who has gone through everything he's gone through and having played for the Yankees, having played for teams like that which have that winning mentality, I think it's very important for them to have someone like him. He can share his knowledge with the guys. I think that's why teams recruit guys like this."
Veras does have an edge in that he knows most of the young Latin pitchers. He also has a solid track record.
"When you have the experience he has, he's not afraid," Villanueva said. "He'll speak. He's got a lot of presence. Now at this stage in our careers, we stand up and we speak and young guys usually tend to listen and they take advantage of that. When I talk to them, they listen. He's got that same gift. It's important for the younger guys and even me, I listen to him, he listens to me, and we learn from each other."
Veras does listen. Castillo caught Veras during his first live batting-practice session, and the pitcher asked the young catcher for advice. Castillo noticed Veras was flying open a little on his delivery and the pitcher corrected it.
"He wants to get better and better," Castillo said. "He's one of those guys, who says, 'Hey, I want to throw a pitch, I want to throw with conviction.' He says, 'If I get hit, it's my fault.' He blames himself if something happens. He's really good, he's really mature.
"He told me, 'Whatever you see of me, just let me know,'" Castillo said. "[He said] 'I want to get better.'"
The same is true for the young Cubs pitchers. Rondon, the Indians' Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2009, was the Cubs' Rule 5 pick in December 2012 and has a chance to be a solid setup pitcher. Pedro Strop also is a candidate for setup duties. If you see Veras on the field, Rondon and Strop are usually not far behind.
"Bottom line is that's what we're here for, to try to do the best we can," Veras said. "That's what it's all about."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.