A year ago at about this time the debate began to heat up amongst baseball fans, writers and really anyone who cared about baseball. The Washington Nationals were well on their way to winning the NL East and had, by all accounts, the best team in the National League at that time. A big part of their success was SDSU product Stephen Strasburg. Unfortunately for Nationals fans, Strasburg was coming off Tommy John surgery and the Nationals brass were very clear that he would be shut down prior to the playoffs. It’s one thing to say that in April if you don’t think you are going to make the playoffs. It’s quite another to be staring a #1 seed in the playoffs in the face and shutting down your best pitcher. But they did it. The Nationals didn’t make it out of the NLDS. In their defense, Strasburg remains very healthy (and just pitched his first complete game).
Now, Andrew Cashner is not Strasburg. And the Padres, barring some kind of miracle run (and frankly, it’d be nice to be on the other end of such a miracle comeback once in awhile), won’t be in the playoffs. Nevertheless, Cashner’s future role in the Padres rotation is likely to be a big one. One could argue that Cashner has been the best pitcher the Padres have had this season (an argument could be made for Stults as well and we don’t really know what we have out of Ian Kennedy and Tyson Ross yet though things appear promising). In a rotation that likely will not contain Volquez, Marquis, or Richard, Cashner could very well find himself atop the rotation in 2014.
As of Wednesday’s game in Colorado, Cashner has 130.1 IP. His previous career high? 111.1 (which, it’s worth noting combines 57 IP in the Minors). As of August 14, he has already gone 19 innings beyond his career high. It’s worth noting that this comes a bit more than a year from the 3rd inning in Phoenix in which Cashner airmailed his warm up pitch and was removed due to a strained right lat muscle. He missed the rest of July, all of August and was shelled on September 3rd before being shut down for the year. In the end it was determined that Cashner needed rest, which he received during the winter (and then some thanks to an errant hunting knife).
Unfortunately injuries are not uncommon to Cashner who missed basically all of 2011 due to a rotator cuff injury. On the plus side, neither the rotator cuff nor the lat muscle required surgery. In both cases they were strains. Caused by overuse or stress? Who’s to know for sure. But why tempt such a thing?
Cashner has the 2nd highest ERA+ on the staff, 2nd highest SO/9, 2nd lowest ERA, and per Fangraphs the highest WAR of all SP. The Padres are 15.5 games back. There is little reason to risk Cashner’s health at this point.
This isn’t to say that he should be shut down. But limited in some way? Absolutely. And it should start now. Obviously, Bud Black knows this. In fact, dating back to a June interview with Darren Smith there was talk of figuring out how to limit Cashner’s innings and indicating his innings limit would be around 150 “ish.” In what somewhat sounds funny now, the concern then was making sure Cashner was available for a playoff push in September and possible games in October. Obviously, that concern no longer exists. But the plan has already been put in play. For starters, Cashner started the season in the bullpen. In Miami at the end of June the Padres pushed Cashner’s start from Saturday to Sunday. He was moved to the 5th spot in the rotation. And come September, Burch Smith and Robbie Erlin are likely to be here to eat up a start or two.
If the Padres plan to shut him down at around 150 innings and currently at 130 innings that likely gives Cashner 4 more starts. At that pace Cashner’s last start would be September 6th. However, the Padres have 3 off days plus the September 1st roster expansions.
I actually had the chance to ask Bud Black this question specifically. The basic takeaway? 150 innings is a soft target number and with rosters expanding we could see Cashner skip a start or two (amounting to pitching once every 10 days vs 5). But the goal is to get Cashner to pitch through September, not to shut him down.
I’m not sure the what the purpose of that goal is but at least there is a plan to limit his innings in September. Perhaps it’s a mental hurdle to clear. With a guy who’s had so many injury issues in the past, playing a full season is bound to have some mental payoff for him.
For me, Andrew Cashner has quickly become one of my favorite players on this team and has become must watch starts. He’s had a breakout year in 2013 and with Cory Luebke, Joe Wieland and Casey Kelly due back next season, his success has provided more hope for a rotation that was much maligned this season.
But kid gloves over the next 8 weeks Buddy.