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Cashner turning corner in Padres' rotation

Right-hander showing major upside in successful starting outings

SAN DIEGO -- OK, so maybe Padres pitching coach Darren Balsley is the wrong guy to ask questions of in regards to starting pitcher Andrew Cashner.

After all, what would you expect Balsley to say when asked if he'd rather have Cashner sending a charge through the ballpark radar gun with 100 mph fastballs or pitch efficiently so he could get outs deep in a start?

"If I could have it both ways ... I would want both," Balsley said, smiling.

The truth is, Balsley and the Padres can't have it both ways with Cashner, and, honestly, everyone is perfectly fine with that.

"I don't think that he's backing off his pitches," Balsley said. "He's learning efficiency. It's not all about velocity."

With Cashner, it doesn't have to be, which is a dramatic departure from a year ago, his first season with San Diego, when he was first used as a late-inning relief pitcher where he could use his bullets as he saw fit before later moving into the rotation.

As a reliever, efficiency was a dirty word. Today, it's a trusted ally.

Since moving into the starting rotation last month, Cashner has gone 3-2 with a 2.80 ERA in six starts, while opponents are hitting .227 against him. He's pitched into the seventh inning in his last three starts while using a devastating two-pitch mix, the fastball and changeup, to get hitters out.

Cashner will make his seventh start on Saturday, when the Padres face the D-backs at Chase Field.

Don't be mistaken; Cashner still throws hard. His fastball average is 94.3 mph, the sixth-highest average speed for a starting pitcher in the big leagues. Cashner just isn't throwing it as much while using his changeup more. He is still working on a traditional slider after using a knuckle-slider in the past.

All of this, of course, is aimed at allowing Cashner to get more contact earlier in counts instead of just trying to blow the ball by hitters, which can run up a pitch count quickly. So it's not necessarily about saving bullets, but more about being smarter with them.

"The biggest thing is not being max effort every pitch," Cashner said. "It's really not that I'm saving myself. I'm still using a lot of effort. But I guess it's more of being smarter about it and how I go about it. I think my fastball has been good and my changeup has been good, but I think the biggest thing is taking some off my changeup."

Cashner is throwing his changeup 24.3 percent of the time, according to FanGraphs. That's up from 21.6 percent a year ago. The biggest change is in his velocity, as the changeup averages 85.6 mph, down from 87.0. The difference appears to be minimal, but Cashner knew he needed to create a bigger differential between his fastball velocity and that of his changeup.

"He's got front-of-the-rotation-type of stuff," manager Bud Black said. "It's a big arm. I think now, he's starting to come into his own. The last couple of years have been interrupted. Hopefully it's smooth sailing from here on out."

To be sure, there's a lot to like about Cashner.

"Big upside," Black said. "Cash is growing before our eyes."

Cashner, 26, is still a work in progress, which isn't a slight to the right-hander by any means. He arrived in the big leagues with the Cubs in 2010 after making all of 39 starts in the Minor Leagues. Cashner landed in San Diego in December 2011 after the Padres sent first baseman Anthony Rizzo to the Cubs.

Fans bristled at moving the popular Rizzo in a trade and turned their noses up that it was for a pitcher who missed most of 2011 with a strained rotator cuff. But general manager Josh Byrnes saw Cashner pitch late in the 2011 and was impressed with his arm and upside in the Arizona Fall League.

"We were watching him in the Fall League, and he stood out with his size, athleticism, delivery, the arm action ... he was pretty good in those areas," Byrnes said. "There was a foundation to build off."

What does Byrnes see now?

"He has been pitching off his fastball more, and I think that opens up the plate for other pitches," Byrnes said. "There's also his competitiveness. As a starter, there are points in the game you have to deal with, situations you have to battle through.

"There's been times when he's had to dig in and make pitches. He's done that."

Cashner might have been in the rotation to start the season, though he came along slowly during Spring Training after sustainiing a lacerated tendon in his right thumb while a friend inadvertently cut him while the two were dressing meat after a hunting trip in December.

But Cashner made up ground fast in Spring Training, vowing that he would be ready by Opening Day. He was, though he began the season in the bullpen. Now that Cashner is part of the rotation, he won't likely head back to the bullpen anytime soon, even if the team figures to cap his innings around 150.

"It's a big opportunity for me. I think 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. "It's been nice to get the opportunity, and I'm trying to take it this time."

Corey Brock is a reporter for Keep track of @FollowThePadres on Twitter.
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