Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2011
By Patrick Mooney
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.