Armed with options, Cubs banking on Cashner

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Armed with options, Cubs banking on Cashner

Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2011
6:25 p.m.

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

The Cubs didn't plan their entire off-season around Andrew Cashner, but many ideas are bounced off his potential.

They sold their 2008 first-round pick to reporters as part of a larger youth movement. They used him in marketing and promotional materials directed at fans. They refused to include him in the package for Matt Garza.

Growing up in Texas, Cashner loved watching two pitchers in particular - Nolan Ryan and Kerry Wood. The below-market deal that Wood signed last month to come home gives the Cubs another clubhouse leader, and the flexibility to move Cashner out of the eighth inning.

After 15 years in the minors, Mark Riggins was probably due for another shot. But the new Cubs pitching coach also got the job in part because of the relationship he developed with Cashner as the minor-league coordinator (and as someone who also likes duck hunting in the winter).

Clearly the Cubs are invested in Cashner's future and will give him every chance to succeed as the front-line starter they think he can become.

The 24-year-old is confident, but not cocky, with a right arm that can throw a baseball 100 mph. He is thoughtful and accommodating with the media, but rarely strays off message.

If moving back and forth between the bullpen and the rotation stunted Jeff Samardzija's development - as some have suggested - then Cashner still doesn't care. He just wants to pitch in the big leagues.

Manager Mike Quade will have plenty of obligations at this weekend's Cubs Convention, but he will find time to reconnect with his players. Quade earned points for the way he defined roles and handled his bullpen late last season.

And Quade will need his communication skills across the next several weeks, because after Ryan Dempster, Carlos Zambrano and Garza, there could be seven pitchers competing for two spots in the rotation.

"I don't get too worked up early on because, bang, all of a sudden, you blink, it's changed," Quade said Wednesday at Harry Caray's downtown. "Now you've got two additions that have specific roles (in Garza and Wood) and they've earned them, (so) the kids (are) in flux. The idea that you can never have enough pitching is huge. We got a pretty good group coming to camp, so we'll see how the back end looks as it shakes out."

The Cubs are hoping that Carlos Silva will overcome his various injuries. They know that Samardzija is out of minor-league options. They think that 23-year-old Casey Coleman (4-2 with a 3.33 ERA in eight starts) could continue where he left off last season.

They are considering stretching out James Russell, because he has four pitches and they are already stacked with left-handers in the bullpen: Sean Marshall, who no longer has the same desire to start; John Grabow, who's said to be healthy; and Scott Maine, who impressed last September.

All these moves are related and could impact what the Cubs do with Tom Gorzelanny and Randy Wells. Gorzelanny is 28, left-handed and eligible for arbitration, a combination that could make him an attractive trading chip.

Wells - who says he's quit drinking and insists that he was never out partying with the Blackhawks hours before a start last summer - should have a better handle on things in his third season as a Cub.

"I know how special it is to win in this town and help them win a championship," Wells said. "I want to be a part of it. I don't want to be the guy that misses out on it by a year by being selfish or something like that. So (I'll) do anything to help."

It will certainly be an interesting conversation if Zambrano doesn't get to make his seventh consecutive start on Opening Day. Quade, who lives in Bradenton, Fla., during the off-season, heard all about Garza last week on Tampa talk radio. The manager says he has no idea who will be starting April 1 at Wrigley Field.

"What I know is I've got three great pitchers to choose from," Quade said. "There are too many variables (now), but there's no question that Garza's in the mix. We'll take a look at Z and Demp and see where we go with that."

Ultimately, whether or not the Cubs can hang in the National League Central could come down to the depth of their rotation. Cashner and Russell are moving out to Arizona next week to prepare for a spring training that won't be about the experience of being in a big-league clubhouse this time.

Cashner hasn't really had to change his routine - 39 of his 43 minor-league appearances came as a starter - and if he performs he could make this decision very easy for the organization.

"I can only control my spot," Cashner said, "and I'm going to give it my best shot."

PatrickMooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. FollowPatrick on Twitter @CSNMooneyfor up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

Jake Arrieta getting close and message to Cubs is clear: ‘We can’t expect outside help to get us out of this rut’

Jake Arrieta getting close and message to Cubs is clear: ‘We can’t expect outside help to get us out of this rut’

MIAMI – Kyle Schwarber’s offensive spiral had gone on for so long and gotten so deep that the shock value of sending a potential franchise player to Triple-A quickly wore off once the news broke on Twitter.

The Cubs sent their message directly to Schwarber. Even if the bosses wanted to, the Cubs couldn’t put the rest of the clubhouse on edge by demoting a .171 hitter with 260-plus plate appearances in late June. 

The Cubs are in survival mode, not a position to play mind tricks, beginning an 11-games-in-11-days road trip with World Series MVP Ben Zobrist (sore left wrist), Gold Glove outfielder Jason Heyward (cut left hand) and Cy Young Award finalist Kyle Hendricks (right hand tendinitis) all on the disabled list.   

The Cubs didn’t rebook Schwarber to Iowa so he can be converted into a pitcher. An aging, stressed rotation remains a much bigger concern than the boom-and-bust periods with a young offense. 

All these circumstances made a vintage Jake Arrieta performance during Thursday night’s 11-1 win at Marlins Park so important. Whether or not the Cubs make a blockbuster trade for a pitcher, there are still five-plus weeks left until buyers and sellers will feel the urgency of a deadline.   

“If something presents itself that makes sense, we’ll certainly jump on it,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “But to us, the answers are in that clubhouse. We can’t expect outside help to get us out of this rut. The answers are in there, and we believe in those guys. 

“Will we be active? No question. But that’s not going to happen for a while and there’s a lot of games to be played between now and July 31.”

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On a night where he felt “low energy,” rocked a new buzz cut and covered his right thumb with Dermabond to treat a cut/blister issue that can be traced back to spring training, Arrieta needed only 82 pitches to get through seven innings, completely shutting down a strong Miami lineup except for a Marcell Ozuna home run.

Arrieta’s inconsistencies (7-5, 4.36 ERA) have mirrored a 37-35 team, but he didn’t hesitate when asked where he is at now in a season that has so far not lived up to his Cy Young/All-Star expectations.  

“I’m close,” Arrieta said. “I’m really close.”

The Cubs are still the defending champs. Kris Bryant unleashed an MVP swing when he launched a three-run homer into the left-center field patio deck. Blocking out a messy personal situation, All-Star shortstop Addison Russell almost hit for the cycle (no triple) the day after getting questions about his divorce and a Major League Baseball investigation. This year’s Schwarber – rookie Ian Happ – also went 4-for-5 and gave the team another jolt.  

“It’s tough to see Schwarber go down,” Arrieta said. “We know that he’s going to be one of our mainstays in the lineup eventually. He’s hit a rough patch and it happens to the best of us. 

“I’ve been there. I talked to him yesterday a little bit about just keeping his head down and going to work and getting his at-bats and trying to find that comfort level. He’ll be back soon. He’s a tremendous hitter who’s going through some struggles and he’s going to right the ship. There’s no doubt about that. He’s too good of a hitter.

“A night like tonight where we pitch well and we score 11 runs, it looks easy. But it’s about consistency and trying to build off of a night like tonight. We’ve got the guys necessary to do so. We’re very capable of doing that.”

Especially if Arrieta gets hot again and shows how he can lift an entire team. 

“To get Jake pitching that kind of quality game again is going to be a big boon to us,” manager Joe Maddon said.

Did Cubs start the tailspin by making Kyle Schwarber their leadoff guy?

Did Cubs start the tailspin by making Kyle Schwarber their leadoff guy?

MIAMI – Everything aligned for the Cubs to make Kyle Schwarber their leadoff hitter. Joe Maddon’s gut instincts told him to do it – so the manager asked the Geek Department to run the numbers – and the projections backed him up. A front office raised on Bill James principles endorsed the idea after Dexter Fowler took an offer he couldn’t refuse – five years and $82.5 million – from the St. Louis Cardinals.
   
It all looked good on paper and sounded reasonable in theory. But by the time the Cubs made the Schwarber-to-Iowa move official before Thursday’s game at Marlins Park, the slugger once compared to Babe Ruth in a pre-draft scouting report had devolved into the qualified hitter with the lowest batting average in the majors (.171) and an .OPS 75 points below the league average.  

If Schwarber had been batting, say, sixth since Opening Day, would the Cubs be in a different spot right now?   

“Obviously, I can’t answer that,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “It’s an impossible question to answer. We put him in a leadoff position and he struggled. We obviously moved him out of that position (and) that didn’t work either. I know that’s what people are going to point to, because that’s a variable in his career. 

“Obviously, hitting him leadoff in 2017 didn’t work. Whether or not it caused the tailspin, I have no way to answer that question.”   

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The Cubs also deserve credit for: drafting Schwarber when the industry viewed him as a reach with the No. 4 overall pick in 2014; fast-tracking his development to the point where he could help the 2015 team win 97 games and two playoff rounds; and overseeing a rehab process that allowed him to be a World Series designated hitter less than seven months after reconstructive surgery on his left knee.    
 
The Cubs will have their hitting instructors give Schwarber subtle suggestions, focusing on how he starts his swing and where he finishes, trying to reestablish his balance and confidence during this Triple-A timeout.
    
But deep down, this is a 24-year-old player who never experienced a full season in the big leagues before and wanted so bad to be a huge part of The Cubs Way.

“I do think a lot of the problems are mental,” Hoyer said. “These struggles have kind of beaten him up a little bit. Like anyone would, he’s lost a little bit of his swagger, and I think he needs to get that back. But I think when you look at what a great fastball hitter he’s been – how good he was in ’15, how good he was last year in the World Series – the fact that he hasn’t been pounding fastballs this year is a mechanical/physical issue that we’ll be looking to tweak. 

“This is a guy that has always murdered fastballs and he’s not there right now.”