The Padres’ Cashner Quandary

Sometime in early December, I was fortunate enough to meet up with Padres Public’s resident Beck Hansen lookalike and all around good guy, Geoff Young. On the agenda was beer, the Pacific Northwest, and – of course – baseball. Understandably, due to the circumstances surrounding what was at the time a very recent hunting accident, the subject of Andrew Cashner came up. We argued the merits of the trade that brought Cashner to San Diego, the talent sacrificed, and whether the gamble was worth it.

Towards the end of our discussion, an interesting point was presented: suppose the Padres viewed Anthony Rizzo’s chances of developing into a capable first-division player, but not necessarily a star, at 50%. Even with an injury history that made Cashner’s chances of reaching his ceiling as a potential No. 2 starter much lower, say 10-20%, did they owe it to themselves to shoot for the moon? Was this a move designed to cash in on Cashner’s immediate contributions as a reliever and develop him in a larger role that had more value long-term?

Right or wrong in this particular instance, the philosophical approach as it pertained to roster building, as well as Cashner’s development, has consumed my thoughts ever since.

Early Returns vs. Long-term Value

When the Padres dealt for him in January of last year, baseball critics saw it as a win for the long-term development of the Cubs and a grasp at immediate value for the Padres’ general manager, Josh Byrnes. As Keith Law explained, he preferred Anthony Rizzo to Yonder Alonso & saw the idea of Cashner in the rotation as far-fetched:

Whether [Cashner] can start in the long term is an open question after a rotator cuff injury wiped out most of his 2011 season; he has the weapons to start, but even 100 innings in a swing role in 2012 would be aggressive for a guy who has little history of starting and recent shoulder trouble. The floor in relief is fairly high, as he could be the next Craig Kimbrel in that role, but the odds of him holding up as a starter are fairly small.

Former Baseball Prospectus contributor and current Coordinator of Pro Scouting for the Houston Astros, Kevin Goldstein, saw Cashner’s lackluster command in the 2011 Arizona Fall League & shoulder woes as a major hurdle towards his development as a starter and stated that “there is reason to believe that he’s just not designed to pitch 200 innings per year.” While failing to light up the radar gun was an easy giveaway, it wasn’t hard to see how only four months of wear-and-tear (and a recurring lat injury) forced Cashner to shorten his stride; nursing his injury appeared to cause him to compensate by pulling through on his glove-side, affecting his balance and momentum:

5/16 vs. 9/14: four months of wear-and-tear:

5/16 vs. 9/14

And yet, the outlook for Cashner – the 6-foot-6 Texan with the bright red beard capable of hurling a baseball in triple digits – appeared very differently in local publications. At times, he sounded more like the makings of folk lore legend than real-life major leaguer. Hitting a very highly-publicized 103 MPH during Spring Training appearances, or a tale in which Cashner insisted on hitching his fishing boat to the back up his pick-up and relocating it from the Peoria Sports Complex to the PETCO Park staff parking lot in San Diego felt like a series of highly-calculated stories to simultaneously help humanize & promote a larger-than-life figure. After all, nobody would blame the organization for trying to make sense of moving one of the club’s top young talents.

Starter or Reliever?

The Andrew Cashner that Padres fans were introduced to in 2012 was very much the same strange story of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde that existed since his days as TCU’s closer. Electric stuff with a high ceiling as a starter due to having two plus pitches, sullied by devastating bouts of wildness & injury. Talent evaluators viewed Cashner’s high-effort delivery and tendency to overthrow as an understandable roadblock in his development as a starter. Still, that didn’t stop the Chicago Cubs from spending what time wasn’t lost to injury to developing Cashner as a starter – 42 of his 48 appearances in their minor league system were as a starter. Not much changed upon moving to Tucson, as his career minor league numbers indicate:

App.

IP

ERA

WHIP

K/9

BB/9

SP

47

194.2

2.73

1.15

8.4

3.7

RP

6

9.2

3.72

2.07

8.4

4.7

However, that role quickly reverses itself upon promotion to the big leagues:

App.

IP

ERA

WHIP

K/9

BB/9

SP

6

24.2

4.38

1.01

9.1

1.5

RP

87

86.2

4.26

1.48

8.8

5.1

Granted, it’s hard to draw any conclusions with this data due to the comparative level of talent, multiple league/division changes, and sample size – but the numbers did indicate a transition to a major league relief gig was not only a bit rough, but contrary to his role at the lower levels. When the Baseball Prospectus team came to PETCO Park on May 19th for an interleague game against the Los Angeles Angels, I had the pleasure of sitting next to former Dodgers’ general manager, Dan Evans. When Cashner came in to face Maicer Izturis and the rest of the Angels’ 2-3-4 hitters in the bottom of the 8th inning, Evans turned to us and stated rather matter-of-factly, “watch this.” After each pitch, Evans would ask over his shoulder if we saw it. None of us could feign the slightest bit of comprehension of what we were supposed to be seeing.

Repeating this for a couple batters, Cashner blew a first-pitch fastball past Mark Trumbo at 99 MPH, Evans turned and said with a grin, “he’s checking the scoreboard…he’s in love with his fastball.” Sure enough, Cashner was turning to see if his fastball registered triple digits (which he did hit on his third pitch to Trumbo, and again with a 101 MPH ball to Howie Kendrick).

This makes my arm hurt.

“100 MPH? I am the danger.”

While an 80-grade fastball & plus-slider is part of the reason Cashner profiles as a late-inning reliever, there’s a different feel of intensity to Cashner as a reliever – where despite what appears to be a fairly direct, easy arm action, there’s still a lot of effort as he rears back and guns it with reckless abandon intent, on blowing every last hitter away. In this case, the outcome was the same as his previous outing against the Dodgers as he struck out the side. However, his inability to harness that even in short stints is what garnered concern as far back as his college days, seeing as he tended to overthrow.

Fast forward a couple months to the Padres’ Social Media Night in late-August, and Josh Byrnes is drawing comparisons between Cashner and another of the National League’s top flamethrowers with an identity crisis, Aroldis Chapman. Byrnes made a point of noting that while Cashner’s delivery did include a bit of violence, his fluidity & balance still allowed for a shot at starting. Chapman’s violent delivery, arsenal, and arm action were best suited out of the bullpen. The biggest difference, however, was in their respective mindsets.

Byrnes believed – perhaps still believes – that the biggest difference between the two were their mindsets, and that Cashner differed from Chapman mostly because he didn’t view himself as a late-inning reliever. The biggest believer in Andrew Cashner’s continued development into a front-line starter may, in fact, be Andrew Cashner – and not to diminish the make-up of a player, it seems to have influenced his general manager (at least during one contained social get-together) into thinking that, in the long run, it might work to his advantage.

The Future

Despite the mythic arsenal and luscious strawberry locks, the tale of Andrew Cashner cannot be told without acknowledging the past few months. Not only did he get shut down for an lat injury during a disappointing July 3rd start against the long-tossin’ Trevor Bauer, but upon his return to the rotation in early September, his two spot starts had far from his electric stuff. Having tracked his September 14th start, Cashner hit 97 MPH with his fastball and sat 94-96 in the first inning, but had trouble eclipsing 90 with the four-seamer from that point forward. Cashner failed to average 95 MPH on his fastball for each of his last three starts. While tough to see from the stands, Baseball Prospectus’ resident pitching expert, Doug Thorburn, informed me that he appeared to be dialing it down intentionally:

While a lingering lat injury may have driven Cashner towards precision over power – he struck out 7 and walked none over his final 9.2 IP – the results that night did not look encouraging, as he only lasted 3.2 IP, surrendering 10 H, 6 ER, 1 HR, and only 2 K. Although it’s only a small sample, it raises the question if his arsenal can be effective with a more conservative approach. A triple-digit fastball may be a weapon by itself, but when asked to lengthen his outings, his fastball velocity dipped anywhere between 3-5 MPH, while the slider remained fairly constant. Despite the improved control, the arsenal flattened and his opponents feasted:

90 MPH fastballs with no movement leave in a hurry.

90 MPH fastballs with no movement leave in a hurry.

Not long after in a December 2nd chat with U-T beat writer, Bill Center, it was revealed that Cashner rejected the Padres desire that he pitch some Winter Ball to work up his innings the way Robbie Erlin did in the Arizona Fall League. Shortly thereafter, news broke that Cashner had lacerated a tendon in his thumb during a hunting accident and would require surgery. Fresh questions stemming from his refusal to participate in winter league activity and the subsequent injury called into question the very same workmanship and dedication Byrnes had praised only a couple months earlier. While his china doll body presented issues, this was something much different – this was a question of #want.

It is here where we come to diverging mindsets: is it better to invest in the high-risk, high-reward player? Is it wiser to stick with the more modest ceiling if there’s a greater chance of reaching it? Can I trust Cashner to dress my kill? With a rich history of injury troubles that dates back to college, it seems that the stuff is still there but even a 10% chance of achieving his ceiling may have been an unrealistic expectation.

My contention is that neither the Cubs nor the Padres have been able or willing to give up on the dream. There may not be a need to just yet as he’s still only 26 years old. However, the clock is ticking and if Cashner cannot make it as a starter, it’s up to the Padres to acknowledge this and attempt to develop him solely as a relief pitcher. It’s a role he’s never had to develop into, but used as a backup plan. For all we know, perhaps preparedness has always been the problem. While common sense dictates that a larger role may result in greater organizational value, a defined role and regimented approach might be able to hone Cashner’s plan of attack instead of jerking him between the rotation and bullpen.

Abandoning starting pitching aspirations and transitioning Cashner back to the bullpen appears a bit defeatist – nobody wants to admit that the high-profile prospect they gave up yielded a reliever, even if his stuff proves that he’s at least capable of closing out games as some Bunyunesque, cult status hero. Cashner’s injury history may severely limit his ability to get in any games at all, and while any team would prefer if their most talented arms ate the most innings, doubling down on a wager that’s to this point proven to have a low success rate might limit the possibility that the Padres pull any value from Cashner – even in a limited role. At this point, perhaps they should focus on breaking even.

Regardless, the Padres’ Cashner quandary is one that’s kept my head spinning through the doldrums of winter and, no doubt, will continue to do so throughout the 2013 season.

You are encouraged to comment using an exisitng Twitter, Facebook, or Google account. Upvote comments you find helpful, and only downvote comments that do not belong. The downvote is not a 'disagree' button.

  • Considering the lack of pitchers with #1 or even #2 talent at the major league level, I think you have to continue running Cashner out as a starter, so long as his current injury history holds. Even if Cashner is only available for 100 innings as a starter, how much would he potentially pitch coming out of the bullpen? Maybe 60-70, and the ability to pitch in the postseason (which is an even larger hypothetical with Cashner out of the rotation). And SSS abound, but he looked much more decisive as a SP than coming out of the bullpen, where he just seemed to nibble.

    I was very disappointed by his decision not to get stretched out in winter ball, but I think the hunting accident was just dumb luck, which baseball players seem to be more susceptible to due to their finesse nature and high notoriety.

    Really, I think Cashner, if anything, holds the largest key to the Padres’ 2013 success. Almost all the positions if I remember right posted at least 2.0 fWAR, and should improve with age/development or a return to health. At the very least, with the possible exclusion of Headley, the players should fail to decline sharply. The position players and offense are solidified (though not yet bona-fide), but the SP is riddled with questions about quality innings. If Cashner could pitch 90+ innings by the end of June, he could pass the baton to Luebke and we might have some honest #2 production this year, and that’s before taking account of the impact Erlin or Kelly could have on the rotation.

    • I’m in agreement that the lack of #1 or #2 pitchers at the high levels of the system and their inactivity during the off-season kind of force their hand here. Ideally, Cashner would go 100+ innings and build up a better workload, but he’s only combined for two 100-inning seasons twice as a professional, and not since the 2010 season. I’m a big proponent of the ace reliever, and would like it if there was a perfect marriage between the two roles – where Cashner could see greater workload in high-leverage situations, all while in a role that more closely resembles the preparation of a starter. I doubt that would happen, but 90-120 innings a season seems far more realistic than hoping he hits the innings count of a regular starter.

      And I’m with you when it comes to his mindset coming out of the ‘pen. Scouts & prospect writers have indicated as much, as do the results (and my own casual observations). My question has more to do with whether or not that has to do with how he’s been trained to start & thrown haphazardly into the bullpen upon call-up.

      • I wasn’t very clear in my last post: when I mentioned Cashner hitting 90+ innings by the end of June, I meant that not on the schedule of a regular starter’s workload, but rather the front office would try to front-load his innings to coincide with the early months of the season where he seemingly would provide the most use for the team. You could even set him up as a Strasburg 2.0. Obviously, we can’t forecast if or when another injury would strike. He could be done by April or well into early autumn if his health holds.

        The ace reliever role seems interesting, but how does it work? A start, four days of rest, a few days out of the bullpen, four days of rest, then another start?

      • Gotcha. I’d imagine any sort of plan to front- or back-load innings would be detrimental – especially as he’s rumored to start late due to his injury. As I wrote before, I believe part of the problem is Cashner’s development; put him on a regular schedule and see if he can hack it. If not, drop the act and develop him solely as a reliever. At some point, they have to accept that they might not see his true ceiling and develop him in a way where they can still extrapolate some value.

        The ace reliever thing is a pipe dream. You can look to the ’70s or ’80s to see the kind of workload assignments they’d get, but the idea was to have these guys work for several innings at a time in high-leverage situations. Think of them as pitching on a regular schedule similar to starters but designed to pitch half of the 180-200 innings. Basically, a limited workload with strategic assignments designed to maximize their value.

        I’d imagine the way bullpens are structured now – especially with how closers are compensated in relation to other relievers – there’s no way it could work.

      • Great point regarding the development. Even with the bizarre injuries he’s had this past year, I do think he can still develop the stamina and health to become an SP. That said, if he is destined for the bullpen, a reliever who can throw triple digits is not objectively a bad thing.