Bits: Andrew Cashner's 2014 value

Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo has 22 home runs and 75 RBIs this season, and is owned in more than 92 percent of ESPN standard leagues. Rizzo is seen as one of the building blocks of the young Cubs, a middle-of-the-order presence for years to come. The Cubs acquired him in Jan. 2012 for a young power arm with upside, one that couldn’t stay healthy and whose ultimate role remained problematic. It seemed like a big Cubs win when Rizzo emerged.

Of course, this year that Padres power arm is definitely healthy, and on Monday night in Pittsburgh Andrew Cashner nearly tossed a perfect game against the playoff-bound Pirates. Cashner’s role is pretty clear these days, as he’s been one of baseball’s under-the-radar success stories. He boasts a 2.36 ERA since the All-Star break and enticing upside. As it is, he ranks better on the ESPN Player Rater than the fellow he was traded for, the Cubs building block first baseman who singled in four at-bats Monday, and while Rizzo’s best days are likely ahead of him, the same can be said for Cashner, owned in fewer than 25 percent of ESPN standard leagues.

Cashner became the first Padre to throw a one-hit shutout with no walks and seven or more strikeouts. He permitted a Jose Tabata single to lead off the seventh inning, and that was it. There were no other base runners. Cashner lowered his ERA to 3.21, his WHIP to 1.15 and earned his 10th win of his first full season as a big league starter. Let’s call it a success. Cashner, a first-round pick by the Cubs in 2008, was a terrific minor league starter, but durability was a major issue, so much so that the Cubs used him in relief in 2010, and the Padres weren’t entirely sure what to do with him. Even this April, Cashner appeared mostly in relief.

This prized right arm could go in a few directions in 2014, perhaps to stardom. He’s got Petco Park on his side (2.14 home ERA) but needs a bit of work in road games (4.00 ERA). Cashner clearly made strides this season in lowering his walk rate and being more efficient, and it’s likely kept him on the mound and not the disabled list. In fact, he’s thrown at least seven innings in six consecutive starts.

On the other hand, Cashner’s once-stupendous strikeout rate has dropped quite a bit, along with his fastball, slider and changeup velocity. For comparison, Dillon Gee, Rick Porcello and 60 others have a better K rate. It remains possible Cashner develops into a major strikeout option, but 150 or so over 30 starts seems more likely. Still, he should make another few starts this season, so 175-plus innings with a strong ERA and WHIP likely gets him drafted among the top 60 starting pitchers in 2014. The question is could he emerge as top-20 guy, a potential ace? If his strikeout rate rises, then sure he could. Regardless, add Cashner for his next outing, scheduled for Sunday at home against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Not only is Cashner terrific at home, but he boasts a 1.83 ERA against the Dodgers this season.

Box score bits (NL): Cincinnati Reds right-hander Johnny Cueto made his long-awaited return to the rotation Monday with five shutout innings against the sad-sack Houston Astros. Cueto allowed five hits and fanned five, throwing 82 pitches. He hadn’t pitched since late-June with a strained lat muscle. Activate Cueto even against tougher opposition, including this weekend in Pittsburgh. … Also coming off a long DL stint Monday was Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp (hamstring). He struck out as a pinch hitter and is not expected to see regular playing time down the stretch, so don’t feel compelled to activate him. … Reds shortstop Zack Cozart homered and knocked in four runs Monday, upping his season marks to .253 with 11 home runs (and zero stolen bases), only enough to make him the No. 20 option at his position for the season. Oh, if only Billy Hamilton remained a shortstop. By the way, after all the initial Hamilton excitement, he stole one base last week. He still does not have a big league hit. … Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Caleb Gindl homered, tripled, singled, knocked in three and scored three Monday. Gindl also homered Sunday. He doesn’t bring much power potential, but is worth a look in daily leagues against right-handed pitchers.

Box score bits (AL): Detroit Tigers right-hander Rick Porcello followed up his first career complete game last week with a 10-strikeout performance Monday in beating the Seattle Mariners. Porcello allowed one run in six innings. He’s a good spot-start choice later this week against the Chicago White Sox, against whom he is 4-0 with a 2.02 ERA this season. Against all other teams he’s 9-8 with a 5.10 ERA. … The reeling Texas Rangers sent right-hander Matt Garza to the Tampa Bay mound Monday, and it went poorly. Garza has lost three consecutive starts, and only three of his 11 Rangers outings have been quality starts. Move on. … Los Angeles Angels outfielder Kole Calhoun had three hits and three RBIs Monday, and is hitting .393 with 16 RBIs in September. He makes for a wise pickup. … Those relying on Oakland Athletics right-hander Jarrod Parker probably wish his Monday start was skipped, too, after he was pummeled for eight runs (seven earned). Parker’s Sunday outing was pushed back due to illness. On Monday, Parker allowed more than three runs for the first time since July. Still, rely on him this weekend against the Minnesota Twins.