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Lyle Spencer

Cashner could be on the verge of stardom

With healthy 2013, Padres righty set stage for possible breakout '14 season

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PEORIA, Ariz. -- Andrew Cashner, the best pitcher you might not know much about, answered all the pertinent questions last season for the Padres.

Healthy and productive, he made it to his club-mandated maximum of 175 innings as a starting pitcher. Cashner kept his team in games, winning more than he lost, and he was among the National League leaders in a wide range of important categories. He did everything manager Bud Black, the crafty old lefty, could have asked.

"Cash," as they call him in the clubhouse, was money.

Now, with the innings shield lifted, comes the next phase for the 6-foot-6, 230-pound right-hander from Texas: joining the elite company of the big boys in the business in his age-27 season.

"I don't see any reason why I can't" become one of the game's best, Cashner said, answering a question directly Saturday without a hint of arrogance. "I put a lot of pressure on myself. I've had some injuries that held me back in previous years, but everything kind of clicked last year in the second half. There's no reason why I can't keep that going."

If Cashner continues to provide exclamation marks with his overpowering repertoire and improving control, he can become a household name outside the beautiful city of San Diego. He's that talented.

"He has a fantastic arm," Padres pitching coach Darren Balsley said. "Andrew has come a long way."

Cashner came to Southern California from Chicago in a four-player swap that sent first baseman Anthony Rizzo to the Cubs after the 2011 season. A reliever as a rookie in 2010, he hit triple digits on the radar gun. Cashner missed almost all of '11 and about half of his '12 debut season in San Diego.

A torn rotator cuff in 2011 was followed the next year by an injury to a tendon that runs from the inside of his right arm to his armpit and into his lat.

Cashner credits the "care and methods" of strength and conditioning coach Brett McCabe with keeping his arm strong and functional.

"The biggest thing with a starter's mentality is efficiency -- taking a low amount of pitches deep in the game," Cashner said. "That, and how fast you recover for the next start."

Cashner was 10-9 with a 3.09 ERA in his 175 innings, striking out 128 men while yielding 151 hits and 47 walks. He was eighth in the NL in opponents' slugging percentage (.639) and batting average with runners in scoring position (.212) -- the latter a clear sign of his competitive fires.

His strikeouts per nine innings after moving from the bullpen to the rotation dropped from 10.1 to 6.6 -- by design.

Mixing in a changeup with his two breaking balls and a sinker in the 92-95 mph range, Cashner ranked fifth among NL starters with his 94.5 mph average heater. No longer was he going for triple digits, with his focus on staying in the game.

"I can still throw the ball hard late in the game when I want to," he said, sounding a lot like Justin Verlander. "When I throw 98-100 a whole start, it's taxing. I'm throwing my sinker more [now], and it's huge having the velocity late in the game."

Balsley, whose patience and insights Cashner values highly, initially didn't buy the idea of holding velocity for later innings.

"I didn't like it," Balsley said. "But he showed he can make it work. Not many guys can do that."

Cashner also showed last season he can swing the bat and run, hitting .245 with a homer and two steals. He was a shortstop and center fielder at Conroe (Texas) High School, also playing running back and some quarterback in football.

"I love to hit, but I was really skinny as a kid," he said. "I didn't have a growth spurt until [the summer between] my junior and senior year. I didn't play varsity baseball until my senior year. When I graduated high school I was 6-foot-4, 140 pounds."

At Angelina Junior College in Lufkin, Texas, Cashner began putting on weight and finding himself as a pitcher, courtesy of coach Jeff Livin.

"I didn't really know how to pitch in terms of mechanics," Cashner said. "Jeff is the guy who set the foundation for me for all the other pitching coaches I've had."

Moving on to Texas Christian University, he continued to blossom and was the Cubs' first-round pick (19th overall) in the 2008 First-Year Player Draft.

All through his youth, the pitcher Cashner most admired was Nolan Ryan. Cashner wears No. 34 because that was the number the legendary Express -- now an executive with the Astros after his success with the Rangers -- graced in Houston and Texas. The number was worn by another Texan, Kerry Wood, in Chicago.

"I got to play with Kerry in Chicago," Cashner said. "I've met Nolan Ryan [through mutual associates] and he's everything you'd want a hero to be."

In San Diego, Cashner now gets to pitch alongside free-agent acquisition Josh Johnson, the former Marlins star hoping to re-ignite his career with the Padres after a down season in Toronto.

Cashner and Tyson Ross, a 6-foot-6 righty with a bright future, figure to benefit from the presence of a credentialed veteran.

"I don't really know Josh," Black said, "but in the time I've been around him, there's a presence to him. You're talking about a two-time All-Star who's been through a lot -- he's had success, injuries. At 30 years old, [and having signed] out of high school, he's been in professional ball awhile and has experience that lends itself to taking a guy under his wing, mentoring him."

Cashner also has a Buddy for a skipper.

"I always wanted to play for a manager who was a pitcher," he said.

Paint it on the black, the boss advises.

Lyle Spencer is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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