When the Cubs signed Anthony Rizzo to a seven-year, $41 million contract extension on May 13, he was hitting .280/.352/.538, and the deal looked like a huge bargain for the Cubs. Rizzo was a rising star, coming off a strong 87-game stint with the Cubs in 2012 and a great start in 2013. The January 2012 trade that sent hard-throwing Andrew Cashner to the Padres was looking one-sided in favor of the Cubs, with Cashner pitching just 46 innings with the Padres in 2012 and beginning 2013 in the bullpen after an offseason hunting accident.
Not so fast.
Since signing that contract, Rizzo has hit .212/.315/.377; meanwhile, Cashner showed Monday night that he still has electric stuff and top-of-the-rotation potential, firing a one-hitter against the Pirates while facing the minimum 27 batters and striking out seven. The Padres have never thrown a no-hitter and the Pirates' only hit was Jose Tabata's single just under the glove of a diving Tommy Medica at first base. Cashner was inches away from a perfect game. Most impressive, Cashner threw an efficient 97 pitches, keeping the ball down in the zone and not once going to a three-ball count.
It was one of the best performances ever by a Padres pitcher. Using the Game Score method, Cashner's score of 92 is tied for fourth in Padres history in a nine-inning game:
• Andy Benes, July 3, 1994 versus Mets: 97 (9 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 13 SO)
• Kevin Brown, Aug. 16, 1998 versus Brewers: 94 (9 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 11 SO)
• Clay Kirby, July 23, 1973 versus Braves: 93 (9 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 13 SO)
• Benes, Aug. 29, 1991 versus Cardinals: 92 (9 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 10 SO)
(The highest for any game belongs to Kirby, a 109 for his Herculean 15-inning, 15-strikeout effort against the Astros late in 1971. He was 23 years old at the time, one of the hardest throwers in the majors -- he ranked fourth in strikeouts and second in strikeouts per nine that year in the NL -- and went 15-13, 2.87 for an awful Padres team. He was done at 28, that 15-inning game likely contributing to his early demise.)
As for Rizzo, he has shown some power (22 home runs) and is tied for eighth in the majors with 74 walks (22nd in walk rate). Those are two positives, so it's really all about the .229 average dragging down his value. It's not an issue of strikeouts; his K rate is the same as Mike Trout and lower than guys such as Joey Votto and Paul Goldschmidt. It could be some bad luck: Among 141 qualified batters, he ranks 135th with a .251 average on balls in play. Extreme fly-ball hitters can also suffer from a low average on balls in play, but that's not an issue either, as Rizzo's fly-ball rate ranks 60th among qualifiers, basically the same rate as Miguel Cabrera or David Ortiz. His line-drive rate is fine. The more you examine, the more it appears Rizzo has hit into a lot of bad luck.
He also just turned 24, so I'm willing to believe he's going to be much better than a .229 hitter. But Cashner could be developing into a very good starter. His strikeout rate is still a little low for a No. 1 or No. 2 starter, but he does have that kind of stuff with his fastball/slider combo. I'd probably give the long-term edge to Rizzo -- the Cubs are still going to end up liking that contract -- but don't assume the Padres got fleeced on the deal.