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.

From ‘When It Happens’ to ‘Where It Happens,’ Cubs mining next generation of talent

From ‘When It Happens’ to ‘Where It Happens,’ Cubs mining next generation of talent

MESA, Ariz. – The Cubs turned Theo Epstein’s “Baseball is Better” speech from his first Wrigley Field press conference into a marketing pitch that might distract fans for a moment from an awful big-league product.          

The 2017 “That’s Cub” ad campaign actually uses what started organically years ago within the farm system, two words that recognized a great at-bat or a heads-up play or a defensive stop.    

Business vs. baseball is no longer the dominant storyline it had been during the early phases of the Wrigleyvile rebuild. Business and baseball are booming for what’s become Major League Baseball’s version of the Golden State Warriors.

It’s just interesting that a franchise valued at north of $2 billion has found so much inspiration on the back fields of this spring-training complex, where staffers you wouldn’t recognize get to work before dawn and players you’ve never heard of dream about their big break.

It’s not just drafting Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber. And trading for Anthony Rizzo, Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks and Addison Russell. And hiring a manager obsessed with T-shirts. Baseball operations became a marketing department, selling prospects to Cub fans, the Chicago media and the gurus putting together the rankings – and trying to get buy-in from players who all think they belong in The Show.

Minor-league field coordinator Tim Cossins gets credit for “When It Happens,” a theme that didn’t simply revolve around 1908 and the championship drought. Jason McLeod, the senior vice president who oversees scouting and player development, suggested pairing the W flag with that phrase, and it became this ubiquitous idea around the team.   

“We tied everything into it,” McLeod said Sunday at Sloan Park. “When that time comes, when it happens, can you lay the bunt down? When it happens, can you execute a pitch? Can you go in and pinch-run, steal the base when the time comes?

“The big ‘When It Happens’ is when we win, of course, but for us in (player development), it was about everything that we’re going to be asked to do in that moment: Are you going to be ready when it happens?”

Now what? The defending World Series champs are going with: “Where It Happens.”

A bullet point from Epstein’s bio in this year’s media guide references how his first three first-round draft picks with the Cubs “combined to set up the go-ahead run in the top of the 10th inning of Game 7 of the 2016 World Series when Schwarber singled and (Albert) Almora pinch-ran, moved to second on Bryant’s deep fly to center, and scored on Ben Zobrist’s double.”

“We’re never going to forget about the importance of young players,” Epstein said. “There’s definitely a lot of talented, interesting prospects still in the system and sometimes they get a little overshadowed because of the star young players we have at the big-league level and how quickly some of those guys moved through the system. But there’s a lot of talent there.

“We’re going to lean on young players beyond our prospects, not just in trades, but also to provide organizational depth and also to serve as the next generation, the next infusion of talent at the appropriate time.

“But it’s a process. There’s going to be a lot of ups and downs in development for all these guys. And we have a ton of faith in our player development operation to help these guys along the way.”

So Ian Happ will start the season one phone call away at Triple-A Iowa and see if some combination of injuries and his switch-hitting skills and defensive versatility gets him to the North Side at some point. Or used as a trade chip for pitching, the way third baseman Jeimer Candelario and catcher Victor Caratini appear to be blocked.

Joe Maddon already compared Eloy Jimenez – who can’t legally buy a beer in Wrigleyville yet – to a young Miguel Cabrera or Edgar Martinez. The Cubs are practically begging for someone like Eddie Butler to pitch his way into the 2018 rotation.

By Monday morning, when the full squad reconvenes after a weekend trip to Las Vegas, the Cubs could start making cuts and shaping their Opening Night roster. But the Cubs are going to need so much more than the 25 players who will be introduced next Sunday at Busch Stadium. Maddon used 26 pitchers and 149 different lineups last season. This is “Where It Happens.”

“If this particular group of youngsters were in a different organization that had a greater need right now, you’d probably hear a lot more about these guys,” Maddon said. “But the fact that they’re stuck behind a Bryant and a Russell and a Javy (Baez) and a Rizzo and a (Willson) Contreras and a Schwarber, et cetera, et cetera, it becomes more difficult to really push or project upon these guys.

“But I think these young guys have gone about their business really well. If it’s bothering them or if they’re concerned about that, they’re not showing that. I think they’ve put their best foot forward.”

Joe Maddon doesn’t have any concerns about new Cubs closer Wade Davis

Joe Maddon doesn’t have any concerns about new Cubs closer Wade Davis

MESA, Ariz. – The Cubs studied all the MRIs and analyzed every pitch Wade Davis threw last season, poring over the information on the All-Star closer. During the winter meetings, Kansas City Royals general manager Dayton Moore even took the unusual step of allowing the Cubs to give Davis a physical exam.  

The Jorge Soler trade wouldn’t be announced until athletic trainer PJ Mainville met with Davis at his home in New York’s Hudson Valley. The Cubs got another read on the flexor strain in his right forearm that twice put Davis on the disabled list last season.

Davis now has a 19.64 ERA through five Cactus League appearances – and the complete confidence of a manager who isn’t connecting those dots.

“The injury’s really not an issue,” Joe Maddon said Sunday at the Sloan Park complex. “He feels really good right now. He kind of thought that whole thing was a little bit overblown last year, according to (what he told) me. Because even in talking to him in the offseason: ‘I’m fine. I’m good. I feel really good.’”

Maddon managed the Tampa Bay Rays while Davis broke into the big leagues as a starter and began the transition to reliever. Everything clicked in Kansas City’s bullpen, with Davis blowing away hitters and notching the last out of the 2015 World Series.

“I’m watching him,” Maddon said. “He’s throwing the ball really well easily. That’s what’s really encouraging to me. From the side, there’s no bumping and grinding and…” Maddon made a grunting noise to illustrate his point: “There’s none of that. It’s easy. I look up at the gun and I’m seeing 94, 95 and sometimes 96 (mph). It’s like: Wow, I have never seen him do that in camp.”

Across the last three seasons, Davis allowed three home runs while piling up 234 strikeouts in almost 183 innings. This spring, he has twice gotten only one out, like Saturday’s 29-pitch, four-run appearance against the Colorado Rockies. Overall in March, he’s given up eight earned runs, nine hits and five walks in 3.2 innings.  

“Honestly, I’ve known him long enough that it’s not” a concern, Maddon said. “You’re not going to believe this, but he’s actually throwing better than he normally does in spring training. The biggest problem he’s having right now is command.

“Velocity looks good. The break on the breaking ball looks good. He’s just not throwing the ball where he wants it. And this guy is normally the kind of pitcher that can dot it up really well.

“But everything else looks really good to me, (because) I had him back with the Rays and in spring training you always saw him throwing like 86, 87, 88 (mph). I’m seeing easy 94-95. I’m seeing sharp break on some breaking stuff. It’s just bad counts and bad command right now.”

This isn’t the Cubs saying Carlos Marmol or Jose Veras is our closer. A guy with a 0.84 ERA in 23 career playoff appearances doesn’t care about Cactus League stats. As long as Davis is healthy, there should be no doubts about the ninth inning. Check back next week amid the sea of red at Busch Stadium.

“A lot of it’s just an adrenaline rush sometimes,” Maddon said. “A lot it’s just a moment that you can’t recreate here. You can’t do it. It’s impossible.”