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Cubs hoping Cashner cracks rotation

Chicago Cubs' Andrew Cashner wipes his head after giving up two runs Milwaukee Brewers during third inning spring training baseball

Chicago Cubs' Andrew Cashner wipes his head after giving up two runs to the Milwaukee Brewers during the third inning of a spring training baseball game, Monday, Feb. 28, 2011, in Mesa, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

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Updated: June 4, 2011 4:46AM

MESA, Ariz. — Carlos Silva has the big contract and had that big first half last year. Randy Wells has the 59-start run over the last two years and had a strong spring debut Monday.

But when it comes to the Cubs’ spring battle for the last two spots in the starting rotation, one of those jobs is right-hander Andrew Cashner’s to lose.

‘‘We think he’s our future,’’ pitching coach Mark Riggins said.

And the Cubs plan to invest much of their spring attention on that future starting right now. They’re hoping last year’s rookie bullpen star can become the National League’s next young rotation star — if not the next Kerry Wood.

‘‘Don’t do that to him,’’ Wood said of the already-rampant comparisons. ‘‘It happens when you’re from Texas and you throw hard. I mean, I got compared to Nolan [Ryan] and Roger [Clemens]. But he’s going to be Cashner. He’ll be fine.’’

Cashner being Cashner is exactly what the Cubs want from their 24-year-old flamethrower. He has shown a major-league-quality ­changeup early in camp after working on it the last two months since the Cubs told him he’d be starting this spring.

He made his spring debut Monday, admittedly too adrenaline-rushed in his first, rocky inning — which included an errant pickoff throw, a wild pitch that allowed a run and a pair of two-out hits that led to another run — before settling down for a less-eventful second inning against a Milwaukee Brewers split-squad team.

‘‘I thought my stuff overall was good,’’ said Cashner, who pitched after Wells put up an impressive two-inning start.

‘‘He’s got great stuff, and he’s a young, strong kid, but more than anything what I see is his desire to learn,’’ said Wood, a regular catch partner during warmups this spring. ‘‘We want him to ask questions, and he’s asking the right questions. He’s just got to be patient with himself; he’s still young. . . . He’s going to be good. And he’s got the desire to be great.’’

‘‘He’s one of the top 10 guys I’ve seen in development,’’ said Riggins, who’s in his 27th season of coaching. ‘‘Once every four or five years you get a guy like that out of the draft. That’s how rare he is.’’

That’s why the Cubs discussed during their organizational meetings in November, and decided over the next six weeks, to put their top young pitcher on this path.

‘‘The time seems right,’’ manager Mike Quade said. ‘‘I was thrilled to death to see him in the bullpen, but from the standpoint of the future of the organization, if he can be a top-line starter and we don’t find that out, it would probably be a mistake.’’

Cashner, who went 6-1 with a 2.05 ERA combined at Class AA and AAA last year (mostly as a starter) before being called up May 31, was dominant at times out of the Cubs’ bullpen — especially after Quade took over Aug. 23 and entrusted Cashner with a consistent late-inning role.

He had a 1.40 ERA in 18 appearances under Quade, limiting opponents to a .203 average.

Cashner spent the offseason on conditioning, then working on the changeup that Riggins calls ‘‘phenomenal’’ — even if the breaking ball still needs work.

And now the next step is all up to him.

‘‘I don’t really feel too much pressure,’’ he said. ‘‘The pressure’s always there, whether you’re pitching as a reliever or a starter. But I’d really like to start, and I’m happy that I’m getting the chance to, so I just need to go out there and pitch my game and not let things get too crazy out there.’’

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