Monday, Feb. 28, 2011
By Patrick Mooney
MESA, Ariz. - There may not be another pitcher the Cubs are watching as closely as Andrew Cashner this spring. This is a case study in the question they've faced since selecting him 19th overall in the 2008 draft.
The Cubs hope that the answer is starter. Cashner's potential is the X-factor in any analysis of what the Cubs might do with the two open spots in their rotation.
The comparisons to Kerry Wood are not just a media creation - even Cubs general manager Jim Hendry has acknowledged it.
"Don't do that to him," Wood said. "It happens when you're from Texas and you throw hard. I got compared to Nolan (Ryan) and Roger (Clemens). But he's going to be Cashner and he's going to be fine."
At 24, Cashner feels he's ready to take the next step, that his changeup and breaking ball are right there. The right-hander auditioned during Monday's 5-3 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers at HoHoKam Park. He gave up two runs in two innings, committed an error on a pick-off attempt and watched as one run scored on a wild pitch.
"We're going to find out," Quade said. "We got people in this organization that watched (him start before). I am not one of them. So I was thrilled to death to see him in the bullpen."
Quade has this job, in part, because of the development of young pitchers like Cashner late last year. From Aug. 23 - the day Quade took over for Lou Piniella - through Oct. 1 Cashner posted a 1.40 ERA in 18 games, holding opponents to a .203 average.
"(But) from the standpoint of the future of this organization," Quade said, "if he can be a top-line starter and we don't find that out, it would probably be a mistake. Maybe he could be a top-end closer, but you weigh one against the other. We just signed a top-end closer for three years (in Carlos Marmol)."
Cashner is confident, but he's also made steady, incremental progress to get to this point, where the Cubs are featuring him in marketing campaigns.
Cashner didn't pitch all that much in high school and learned how to throw a breaking ball in junior college. He finally signed as a closer out of Texas Christian University - after being drafted three different times.
"More than anything else, I see a desire to learn," Wood said. "He's asking the right questions. (He's) got all this power and he's such a strong kid that he's got to be patient. (I) think he wants it to happen right away. He's going to be good. ... He's got the desire to be great."
Cashner is used to starting - only four of his 43 career minor-league appearances came as a reliever. But if this experiment works out, he will be in unchartered territory.
Cashner's never thrown more than 112 innings in a season. He's accounted for 177.1 innings across the past three years in the minors, which is about what the Cubs would expect from their fifth starter in 2011.
The 54.1 innings Cashner threw out of the Cubs bullpen last season might get him to May or June as a starter.
"I feel like if I build up now it shouldn't be an issue," Cashner said. "I've never really had any issues with my arm. (But) relieving is a little bit tougher. You might throw five out of seven games, so you got to really hammer out your arm exercises. (As) a starter you know your routine and you can get after it (on) days off. You know what you have coming up."
As a rookie, Cashner proved to be resilient, both physically and emotionally. The Cubs are trying to find the point where they can balance the need to win now against his untapped potential.
"The time seems right," Quade said. "He got his feet wet last year and had some success in the role we asked. Let's see if he can expand on that with what he's done in the past. (There are) no guarantees, but we think he's got the stuff, the makeup and the willingness (to do it)."
PatrickMooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. FollowPatrick on Twitter @CSNMooneyfor up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.