At the close of spring training, the most intriguing decisions of this off-season involved a pair of former prospects that closely mirror one another, Andrew Cashner and Neftali Feliz. As you certainly know by now, the reigning AL Rookie of the Year will be returning to his throne atop the Rangers' bullpen while Andrew Cashner has assumed disgruntled former Cub Carlos Silva's spot in the rotation. These two righties have similar profiles, both as prospects and today as pitchers. While their paths will diverge in 2011, each has the ability to provide excellent value to their teams in contrasting roles.
When the Cubs selected Andrew Cashner with the 29th overall pick in 2008 and subsequently announced they would covert the Texas Christian closer to a starting role, my curiosity was peaked. Cashner was known for his big fastball and plus slider at TCU, and entrenching him as a starter, at least for the time being, appeared the be a bold move from the Cubs.
After all, he lacked a third pitch, had a high effort delivery and the token command issues that typically relegate one to the pen. Since signing, Cashner has since begun to develop a change up, which has given him a legitimate pitch to use against left handers.
Feliz quickly outshined the gemstone of the epic Mark Teixeira trade, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and became the Rangers top prospect by the end of the 2008 season . Of course, Feliz commands an "80" fastball which coincidently had the same velocity as Cashner's in 2010 (96.3 MPH) but which he gets more "whiffs" on even though hitters know its coming (12.7%). He uses the pitch to set up his breaking ball and change up. Both are works in progress and while they are erratic, flash a lot of potential.
It would be unfair for me to go into greater depth on these two pitchers' offerings, I'll leave that to our great pitch f/x experts. But, I think its safe to say that these two both have big time fastballs and a breaking ball and change up that show flashes of greatness but are often erratic.
Though similar, their teams have decided to employ their talents differently. From a development stand point, I prefer the Cubs decision. Having a young starter throw at least twice as many innings should allow him to develop pitches and make more adjustments to major league batters. Hopefully, the Cubs stay with their decision even if Cashner struggles, as bouncing him around, a la, Joba Chamberlain could be detrimental.
The Rangers are well positioned to reclaim the division, and there has been a lot of debate about whether or not to start Feliz. Some have argued that an increase to his workload would be detrimental. However, do we really know what is workload truly is? Pitchers throw innings in spring training that rarely are included in their totals prognosticators consider. Additionally, each organization puts their pitchers are training regimes that include a wide variety of side sessions and muscle building exercises. Really, unless one is inside the Rangers organization one can only have a vague idea of what Feliz can really handle, so lets stop pretending we have any certainty about a pitcher's ability to adapt to increased demands.
With that said, maybe Feliz is better suited for the Rangers bullpen. Alexi Ogando, while being the next best option, is far from proven and had a "huge platoon split" as Dave Cameron shows us. The will Rangers absolutely lose upside with the move by limiting his innings. It is quite possible Feliz could perform very well as a starter despite some unstarter-like characterizes (he throws 82.2% FB, 4th most in the MLB). Additionally, locking Feliz into a role for the entire season will avoid a mid-season Joba situation we may see happen with Cashner.
Obviously, we won't know immediately how these decisions will impact the development of these youngsters. Though, we should remain optimistic that Cubs GM John Henry, Rangers GM Jon Daniels and their staffs know their players better than anyone and have weighed every angle. For 2011, it is difficult to project Cashner's performance in the rotation, but don't be surprised if he is able to match Feliz's value given the differences in the role of a starter and a closer.