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February 19, 2014

Painting the Black

Cash/Rizz Everything Around Me

by R.J. Anderson


As easy as it is to forget, the Jesus Montero-Michael Pineda deal was not the only trade made during that month in which a young pitcher was moved for a young hitter. A week earlier, the Cubs and Padres exchanged Andrew Cashner for Anthony Rizzo as part of a four-player swap. Though not a challenge trade by the strictest definition—the two players did not man the same position—it nonetheless felt like one, in large part because of the executives who were involved.

Josh Byrnes and Jed Hoyer weren't strangers when negotiations began. Previously the pair had worked together under Theo Epstein in Boston. Eventually they broke off to run their own teams, but after Byrnes was fired from Arizona he reunited with Hoyer in San Diego—coincidentally enough, just days before the Adrian Gonzalez deal that sent Rizzo to the Padres. Roughly 12 months later, Hoyer had joined Epstein with the Cubs and Byrnes had taken the reins in San Diego. The Rizzo-Cashner trade came together within months, and those on the outside had to wonder to what degree Byrnes and Hoyer differed in their evaluations of the first baseman.

That doesn't mean much on its own, but it reinforces what should be an obvious point: Smart people—even those within the same circles and front offices—can evaluate players differently.

There's an objective side to it, of course: Rizzo has accumulated about two more wins than Cashner, per most value metrics, but that slim gap appears slimmer due to how they both got here. Rizzo owned 2012, hitting for average and power during his first run in Chicago; Cashner, meanwhile, split his freshman season with the Padres between the bullpen and the disabled list. Early on, the 2013 season appeared to favor Rizzo as well—he homered eight times in April then signed a seven-year extension in May—but his second-half slump coincided with Cashner's surge and left the two on even ground heading into year three.

Which side has the upper-hand heading forward? Let's take a look.

Cashner
For years Cashner has looked like a starting pitcher in every which way but workload. That changed last season, when the large-bodied former collegiate closer tossed a career-high 175 innings. Cashner finished strong, recording 20 more strikeouts than walks during his three September starts. The highlight of his impressive month happened in Pittsburgh, where he tossed a complete game one-hitter, and in the process came within nine outs of recording the first no-no in franchise history.

Impressive raw stuff has remained Cashner's signature since his days at TCU. Blessed with enough heat to make an alligator sweat, the 27-year-old's fastball averaged 95 mph last season despite moving to the rotation and vowing to pace himself, a la Justin Verlander. In addition to the above-average velocity, Cashner's fastball is appealing due to its sink and his ability to throw the pitch for strikes (65 percent in 2013, per Brooks Baseball) and down in the zone. Unsurprisingly, Cashner kept his groundball rate north of 50 percent; a good thing in general, but particularly in San Diego due to Petco Park's high grass.

Beside the fastball, Cashner has three other pitches. Early in the season his slider, typically his out pitch, was absent, replaced by his changeup and curveball. Yet by the time the final two months rolled around, Cashner was back to using his slider more than a quarter of the time. Consider that an encouraging sign for those looking to believe in his second-half improvements. Sometimes Cashner's secondary command wavers, as he leaves the pitches too high in the zone, but his fastball keeps batters honest about a deeper arsenal than the nonstop bullpen projections suggest.

In reality, those projections stem from Cashner's health. His shoulder's well-being remains a potential blockade between him and his no. 2 or 3 starter ceiling. Cashner has missed at least two weeks due to shoulder strains on three occasions, including a five-month absence in 2011 that all but ended his Cubs career. Even last season, the healthiest of his big-league career, he began the year in the bullpen due to an offseason hunting accident that resulted in a lacerated tendon in his thumb. Until Cashner tops 200 innings in back-to-back seasons, or at least goes a year without a noteworthy injury, his odds of remaining on the field will be doubted. If he does maintain a clean bill of health in 2014, he's a good candidate to outperform his PECOTA projection, which pegs him for a 3.88 ERA and 0.8 WARP.

Rizzo
Although Rizzo is three years younger than Cashner and lacks the shoulder issues, his need to succeed feels more immediate due to the $42 million extension. Rizzo failed to build on an impressive first half-season in Chicago, but he improved his walk rate (from 7.3 to 11 percent) along with his ISO (.178 to .186). Chief among the negatives was a 48-point decline in batting average. Banality is always a possibility whenever BABIP is introduced in pieces like this, but Rizzo's poor performance on groundballs did bring one interesting angle to light that suggests he might have been a wee bit unlucky.

There are other concerns about Rizzo's game worth noting—he hasn't hit left-handed pitching, and the longstanding worries about his ineffectiveness versus good velocity remain—but the pendulum has swung too far the other way. Rizzo, who led the Cubs in home runs, finished 11th among first basemen in WARP—right around the same place as Allen Craig, Adrian Gonzalez, and Mike Napoli. What's more is the idea he might hit for either average or power, but not both at once, is three years old.

Even if Rizzo can't do both, he stands to be a useful player. Batting around .250 with 20-to-25 home runs and good defense at the cold corner won't cause anyone to confuse him for Miguel Cabrera, but it's enough for him to be among the league's top-half of first basemen—if not better. While not the outcome many hoped for, Rizzo's contributions shouldn't be dismissed due to the unreasonable expectations borne from an out-of-control hype machine. For it's part, PECOTA expects Rizzo to split the difference between his first two seasons with the Cubs: .256/.330/.467, good for three wins over more than 600 plate appearances. Not all-star worthy, but quality.

The Verdict
It's hard to write about a seemingly even trade without putting its perception to the test, so I polled nine people (mostly writers, but also an industry type or two) to see who each preferred within a vacuum. Luckily enough, the votes finished as close as they could have, with Cashner owning a 5-4 edge.

Here is a sampling of the explanations:

Kiley McDaniel, Scout: "Both have shown the ability to be above-average regulars in the bigs, both have the tools to replicate the performance, and both have real concerns. I'd probably take Cashner since he has a better chance to be an impact guy and addressed his biggest concerns last year with 175 IP and showing the ability to make adjustments as a starter."

Tommy Rancel, ESPN Sweetspot Network: "Rizzo. Because that type of offensive potential is a rarely available on the free market or through a trade, where as a number three starter is usually obtainable one way or the other."

League analyst: "I like Cashner more now than I did a couple of years ago, but Rizzo's got youth and not being a pitcher on his side."

Jason Collette, FanGraphs: "I'll go with Rizzo. First basemen are tougher to draft and develop these days, so having one pre-prime years is an advantage over the competition."

Jonah Keri, Grantland: "Cashner. I see his upside as that of an ace, with Rizzo's ceiling more like a B+ first baseman."

Everyone on the outside loves rip-off deals, where we can teeth-gnash and snark. But when general managers agree to a trade, the optimal outcome is a win-win deal. Byrnes and Hoyer valued Rizzo differently, yet two years later it appears to be a fair deal. Montero-Pineda gets all the press, but Cashner-Rizzo might be the perfect baseball trade.

Special thanks to the nine folks who partook in the survey.

R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see R.J.'s other articles. You can contact R.J. by clicking here

Related Content:  Chicago Cubs,  San Diego Padres

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