Before the million-and-a-half signing bonus or the relief appearance in which he threw 10 straight pitches of at least 101 miles per hour, Padres pitcher Andrew Cashner endured four straight drafts in which he received undulating annual assessments of his ability and potential.
Each June from 2005-08 Cashner received a new evaluation and a new opportunity to sit on the precipice of realizing his professional dream -- and thrice he spurned that chance.
"I never thought it was a good time to sign," he said of his first three selections. "Maturity-wise, I thought I had more to grow in baseball."
Cashner, a hardthrowing 6-foot-6 righty who has more strikeouts (25) than innings pitched (22 1/3) as San Diego's top set-up man, was a classic late bloomer out of Conroe High in suburban Houston.
He added six inches of height to his frame and several miles per hour to his fastball before his senior season. He still lacked a reliable breaking ball or proper command of his pitches, both of which developed over time in college. All of those factors precipitated in the following entries on Cashner's career transactions:
2005: 20th round (617th overall) to the Braves
2006: 18th round (528th overall) to the Rockies
2007: 29th round (877th overall) to the Cubs
2008: 1st round (19th overall) to the Cubs
"He wanted to go into pro ball so bad," said his agent, Peter Vescovo of CAA Sports, who advised Cashner on all four draft decisions. "I know it was hard on him. But he would go back to school and try to get better."
Getting drafted four times is not a record but still far from ordinary. Before Major League Baseball revamped its amateur selection process in 1987, a secondary draft took place in January in addition to the primary draft in June, which helped inflate the selections of some players. Under those rules, at least two players -- Luis Medina, who played with the Indians in 1988-89 and 1991, and Pete Varney, who played with the White Sox and Braves in the '70s -- were drafted seven times each.
Under the current rules, however, only one name stands out as a five-time June draftee: pitcher Matt Harrington, who reportedly turned down a $3.7 million signing bonus from the Rockies in 2000. He was drafted in later rounds in each of the ensuing four drafts and didn't sign with any of those teams. He later signed a minor-league deal with the Cubs but was cut at the end of spring training and never pitched in the majors, nor for any affiliated minor-league team.
Current Oklahoma State pitcher Kyle Ottoson has a chance to join Harrington with five selections, though Ottoson has not been drafted higher than the 24th round; Ottoson was drafted out of high school, after each of two seasons at South Mountain junior college and after last year at Arizona State before he transferred to OSU.
Among active players who have reached the majors, there are at least four who have been drafted four times each according to research done by Major League Baseball: Cashner; his Padres teammate Alex Hinshaw; former Blue Jay and Cardinals pitcher Brian Tallet who is currently with the Padres' Triple A team; and Antoan Richardson, who plays for the Orioles' Triple A team after having a cup of coffee with the Braves last year.
Cashner's story is not about an outrageous bonus demand or a disinterest in playing pro ball. It's about developing late, measuring opportunity and not signing too soon.
In one high school start against The Woodlands, a local powerhouse that featured current Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and Blue Jays starter Kyle Drabek, Cashner got knocked around but was able to dial his fastball up to 90-to-93 mph.
"Basically, I fell in love with his arm even though he was getting hit hard," said then-Astros scout Rusty Pendergrass, who became one of Cashner's biggest early supporters. (Pendergrass now works for the Diamondbacks.)
The Braves selected him that spring, back when baseball's old draft-and-follow rules still applied, which allowed a club to hold a player's rights until shortly before the following year's draft. (Before the 2007 draft, a signing deadline of mid-August was imposed; this year that deadline is July 13.) There weren't negotiations until the following spring.
"I wound up deciding to go to school," Cashner said. "I didn't think I was ready."
Cashner attended Angelina Junior College in Lufkin, Texas, where he missed being a teammate of Clay Buchholz by one year. It was at this time that Vescovo heard raves about Cashner from one of his other advisees who later reached the high minors. He went to see Cashner pitch for Angelina in Mount Pleasant, Texas, and recalls seeing 93-94 heat and easy arm action but with a poor breaking ball and at least one pitch that sailed to the backstop.
"You had to dream on it," Vescovo said. "But he had the live arm and a body."
He began advising Cashner, but the two never came close to a deal with the Braves.
Cubs area scout Trey Forkerway said Cashner was difficult to read early in his freshman year at Angelina because of some nagging injuries and inconsistency. But he returned to see Cashner throw a relief appearance later that spring in which he looked like a different pitcher with a cleaner delivery, a 95-mph fastball and an improved slider.
"I was all in after I saw that," Forkerway said.
Unfortunately for Forkerway, a Rockies scout was also in attendance that day, and that June Colorado selected Cashner in the 18th round. But, once again, he didn't come close to signing.
One day during his sophomore season at Angelina, Cashner was playing catch when he started experimenting with new grips. He improvised a knuckle or spiked slider -- which soon acquired a nickname of "spider" -- thereby giving him a second out pitch, along with his fastball. It was an important step in Cashner's progression from projectable hardthrower to a developing pitcher whose potential seemed more tangible.
Forkerway returned for another Cashner outing late in his sophomore season and again saw great improvement, particularly with that slider, prompting him to think that Cashner could be a future closer. That time he was the only scout on the premises.
Before that year's draft, however, Cashner attended a workout for the Astros at Minute Maid Park. Though Cashner remained laidback throughout his recurring draft decisions, his one bit of initiative came then, when he spoke to Pendergrass -- who had continued to scout him extensively -- and suggested that, if Houston selected him, he'd be willing to accept a discounted bonus to play for his hometown team. Pendergrass was certainly still high on the pitcher. "Everything progressed like I thought it would," he said.
But on draft day it was the Cubs who selected Cashner in the 29th round, meaning the Astros had ample opportunity to pick him and chose not to.
"I really thought they were going to draft me," Cashner said of the Astros.
Draft rooms, however, can be cauldrons of competing interests, with each scout vouching for his prospects while management weighs those reports with signability concerns, organizational depth and more. Houston's intentions regarding Cashner that year are unclear.
Chicago didn't get him that summer either. Forkerway said the Cubs offered $250,000 but Cashner sought $350,000. When Cashner informed Forkerway that he was officially declining the offer, the scout was impressed by how respectful the pitcher was, while maintaining a firm confidence.
"I'm going to prove to everybody I can be a frontline guy," Cashner said at the time.
Forkerway replied, "I believe in you."
Having completed his two years at Angelina, Cashner transferred to TCU, where he emerged into the pitcher so many thought he could become. As the team's closer, he saved nine games while pitching 54 1/3 innings with a 2.32 ERA, 80 strikeouts and .122 batting average against.
His triple-digit fastball also developed at TCU. His first 100 mph radar-gun reading occurred in a game at Baylor, and amusingly -- only in hindsight -- Cashner thinks the exact pitch was one in which he and his catcher were crossed up; the catcher thought something offspeed was coming and the fastball buzzed past him to the backstop.
Pendergrass drove to TCU's conference tournament that spring and rated Cashner as having a plus-plus fastball, plus slider and plus change. Cashner had clearly -- and finally -- established himself as a first-round player. Scouts clamored to his games, and his stock soared.
"I was crying every time I saw him," Forkerway joked of the new attention after the Cubs didn't sign him the previous summer.
But Cashner and Forkerway had grown close (and still talk regularly today), so the pitcher signed the paperwork to allow the Cubs to draft him again. (The league bars clubs from re-selecting players without their consent.) And the Cubs did, this time 19th overall with an accompanying $1.54 million bonus.
For Cashner the waiting game worked. His draft status and corresponding signing bonus grew, and he signed only when he was comfortable.
Asked to share the insights he's gleaned on the process and what advice he'd share with new draft prospects, Cashner said, "Go to college. I think it's a big help. I learned a lot of life skills. It was too important to pass up on."
He left a lasting positive impression in the scouts who courted him, too.
Said Pendergrass, "He's a quality person and a very good young man. Even if you take away the athletic ability, he's a plus person."
Added Forkerway, "In the long run it's going to help his career."
After a shoulder injury marred most of Cashner's 2011 season, his second in the majors, the Cubs traded him to the Padres in a deal of young prospects that brought first baseman Anthony Rizzo to Chicago. In San Diego Cashner is pitching well (3.63 ERA and six holds) and also pitching often -- his 24 appearances are tied for eighth in the National League -- which shows he's fully healthy again.
And Cashner is generating some buzz at Petco Park with his radar-gun readings. In one battle of power versus power earlier this month, Cashner threw eight straight pitches to the Marlins' Giancarlo Stanton (and 10 straight in the inning) of at least 101 miles per hour. He walked him, but it made for great theater. Padres manager Bud Black told the San Diego Union Tribune that the matchup was "good ol' country hardball."
Cashner is averaging 98.7 miles per hour with his fastball this season, according to FanGraphs.com, which is second in the majors only to the Royals' Kelvin Herrera among pitchers who have thrown at least 20 innings this season. Last week Black again praised Cashner's "big arm" and his improving mound presence.
"I'm seeing the poise and focus on the mound get incrementally better," Black said. "We have high expectations of his potential and future."
It took awhile, but for Cashner, it was worth the wait.