Cubs: Cashner living up to his end of Rizzo trade

Cubs: Cashner living up to his end of Rizzo trade
June 3, 2013, 6:30 pm
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SAN DIEGO – As ecstatic as they are, the Cubs aren’t the only ones pleased with their end of the January 2012 trade that landed Anthony Rizzo in Chicago.

Though it has taken some development, and was nearly sidetracked by a pair of injuries, the San Diego Padres remain more than hopeful about pitcher Andrew Cashner’s future.

The Padres see Cashner as a frontline starter who has only begun to tap into his potential. They know they gave away a valuable piece in Rizzo, but the Padres coaching staff values how much Cashner has matured on the mound in his second season with the club.

So while the Cubs target pitching in this week’s amateur draft – and begin a two-game series against the Los Angeles Angels on Tuesday in Anaheim – their 2008 first-round pick looks like a building block in Southern California. Cashner, 26, is 4-3 with a 3.61 ERA since he moved into San Diego’s rotation last month.

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“We’ve got hopefully a top-of-the-rotation starter in the making, that come critical games moving forward for this franchise he can be a big part of this rotation,” manager Bud Black said.

The Padres loved Cashner’s big arm when they exchanged him for Rizzo as part of a four-player deal on Jan. 6, 2012.

The club initially saw the tall Texan as a solution to the late-inning vacancies in its bullpen created by the departures of Mike Adams (traded in July 2011) and Heath Bell (free agency).

But with the team out of contention by early June 2012, the Padres elected to send Cashner to the minors to stretch him out. The Padres are high on Cashner’s fastball-changeup combo with the belief it will play well in the starting rotation.

Cashner finds the opportunity to start refreshing.

“I’ve always been labeled as kind of a bullpen guy, but I think they have a lot of faith in me here that I can be a starter,” Cashner said. “I can’t be more thankful with the opportunity, especially after this offseason.”

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Cashner admits he had no idea what his future held when he was injured in a bizarre hunting accident in early December. The right-hander, whose 2012 season was twice interrupted by an injury to his right latissimus dorsi muscle, was dressing a deer when his friend’s knife slipped and punctured a tendon in the thumb of his throwing hand. Although his surgery required only two stitches, the start of Cashner’s season appeared to be in doubt. Fortunately for Cashner and the team, he returned by March.

“You never really know,” Cashner said. “You tell yourself you’re going to come back, but you never really know how you’re going to feel or how you’re going to bounce back.”

Cashner’s feel for his changeup and four-seam fastball have played a large role in his early success this season.

Even though he has practiced changing speeds since he moved into the rotation – in an effort to pitch deeper into games – Cashner has maintained the critical 10-mph difference between the two pitches he had in 2012.

When he pitched out of the bullpen last season, Cashner lit up the Petco Park scoreboard with triple-digit fastballs and a changeup that hovered at 90 mph.

This season, Cashner’s four-seam fastball average (95.6 mph) is down 2.8 mph from 2012 and his changeup (85.96 mph) is down 1.9 mph.

While less average velocity has resulted in fewer strikeouts per nine innings – down from 10.10 last season to 6.67 in 2013 – Cashner has increased his innings per start. Cashner is averaging 5.89 innings per start this season, up from 3.87 in 2012.

“It’s really not that I’m saving myself, I’m still using a lot of effort,” Cashner said. “But I guess it’s more of being smarter about it and how I go about it.”

A former pitching coach, Black laughs as he mentions that he and Darren Balsley, the club’s pitching coach since 2003, would love to take credit for the “devastating” combination, but it’s entirely on Cashner, he said.

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“He had this coming in,” Black said. “It’s great feel. He has great feel for the change. I think every pitcher works on the changeup, but he’s to the point now where he feels as comfortable with it as he does throwing his fastball in critical situations. For him moving forward, it’s a huge, huge plus.”

Balsley is impressed with Cashner’s progress and believes he has more to offer. Though Cashner has more than two years service time, Balsley thinks there’s plenty of room for growth because he’s early in his starting career. He too is highly impressed with the way Cashner has learned to vary fastball speeds in order to save something for later in games.

“He’s learning what he can do, what secondary pitches are his best, how he can attack hitters,” Balsley said. “He’s recognizing things he can do that he didn’t know he could do in the past. He’s pitching well. That gives him confidence in each and every pitch he throws. … I don’t think he’s backing off his pitches. He’s learning efficiency. Those pitches you see at 93 mph, he’s still putting effort into it.”

After he signed a long-term deal that could last into 2021 and pay him around $70 million, the Cubs clearly have a good feeling about what Rizzo offers the franchise. The Padres, too, like the potential offered by their young pitcher.

“They got an everyday player who’s realizing the potential everybody saw in him,” Black said. “Two guys with great potential are filling needs for both clubs.”