Among the potential routes Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer might take the Cubs headed into 2012 is moving into complete fire sale mode. I must say that I could not argue with that plan, if that is the choice of the men in charge. Even if the Cubs go with a more modest plan, though, it appears that Carlos Marmol could very well be traded for prospects before spring training begins. If that happens, the Cubs will have an opening at closer.
If Marmol is gone, a fair number of Cub fans would like the team to move 2008 first round pick Andrew Cashner to the closer’s role. In many ways this makes sense. Cashner was a very successful closer at TCU and looked quite good in relief action upon returning from the disabled list. He definitely has the stuff to be a very good closer, with a mid to high 90s fastball, a strong slider and an improving change up. There are also legitimate concerns about his ability to handle a starter’s workload after spending most of last year rehabbing from a shoulder injury suffered in his first and only start of 2011.
But the Cubs should avoid this inclination for 2012. The fact that Cashner has three good pitches also gives him the stuff to be a very successful starter if he can stay healthy. If Cashner can stay healthy, he has the stuff to be a true ace in the Major Leagues.
But Cashner does not have to be an ace to be more valuable in the rotation than he would be as a closer. According to FanGraphs, the 105th best starting pitcher in baseball last season was Jeremy Hellickson, who was worth 1.4 fWAR. Presumably the 105th best starter would be the most average number 4 starter in baseball. There were only 24 relief pitchers in all of baseball who were worth more than 1.4 fWAR. And FanGraphs’ most valuable reliever in baseball last season, Craig Kimbrel, only equaled the fWAR of the 42nd most valuable starting pitcher.
Closers should be pitchers who cannot start, either because they are not good enough to start or because they cannot handle a starter’s workload. Cashner should be good enough, and might yet be able to show he can handle a starter’s workload.
With that said, Cashner should not be starting in 2012. After throwing just 10.2 innings last season, he needs to work towards being able to handle the innings load a starter requires. The closer’s role, however, is not the ideal place to do that. It would be preferable to see Cashner moving into appearances of more than an inning as the season goes along. I also have significant concerns about a team being willing to move a successful closer into the starting rotation. In the recent past, the only team I can think of that has done that is the Texas Rangers, who have now done it twice with C.J. Wilson and Neftali Feliz.
The Cubs also are not likely to be in a situation in 2012 where it will really matter if they have an elite closer or not. The odds of the Cubs being a good team next season are quite slim, so whomever their closer probably will not have all that many leads to close out. A great closer is not going to turn the Cubs into a good team next year.
In short, Andrew Cashner’s 2012 should be devoted to seeing if Andrew Cashner can move back into the starting rotation for 2013. If it does not look like Cashner will be able to handle the workload, the Cubs can always move him to closer at that point. But a good starter is nearly always more valuable than even a great closer. And Cashner has the stuff to be a very, very good starter. The Cubs should give him every reasonable chance to move into the rotation long term.