Cate could provide future lefty relief for Nats

The Nationals’ lack of a left-hander in their bullpen finally came back to bite them over the weekend while dropping two of three to the Phillies.

Andrés Machado, who gave up the decisive blow in the form of a three-run home run to Kyle Schwarber in Sunday’s 11-3 loss, appears to have been designated for assignment and right-hander Jordan Weems seems to be the reliever replacing him from Triple-A Rochester.

So when will they finally have a southpaw in the ‘pen?

Sean Doolittle, while close to returning from his minor league rehab assignment, still seems like he needs more time on the farm before being selected back to the major league club. Jose Ferrer and Alberto Baldonado have less than impressive numbers at Rochester, and Matt Cronin is on the injured list with a 5.04 ERA in 14 appearances, the last one on May 20.

What about further down the system?

Tim Cate, a left-handed starter turned reliever with Double-A Harrisburg, may not be an immediate solution for the Nats’ bullpen problems. But he has caught the organization’s attention as a possible bullpen arm for down the line.

“It's been going well,” Cate said of his move to the ‘pen last week while the Senators were playing the Baysox (Orioles) in Bowie, Md. “Making the transition to the bullpen. I think it's gone pretty smoothly in terms of performance. It's a lot different than what I'm used to. But I think it's been going pretty well. I think it's gotten me out of my mind a little bit. As a starter, the anticipation of the start kind of always got to my head. But being in the bullpen, you kind of just go out there without a thought. If you're called on to go in the next inning, you can't really think too much about it. You just gotta go out there and perform. So I think that part of the transition kind of helped me.”

The 25-year-old is 2-2 with a 4.02 ERA, 1.213 WHIP, 9.8 strikeout-per-nine-innings rate and 2.83 strikeout-per-walk rate in 12 appearances this season. Though he hasn’t pitched since May 20 while dealing with a minor injury, which he said is already feeling better.

A 2018 second-round pick out of the University of Connecticut, Cate was named the Nationals’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year during his first full professional season in 2019, when he went 11-9 with a 3.07 ERA, 1.142 WHIP and 8.7 K/9 in 26 starts between low Single-A Hagerstown and high Single-A Potomac.

Cate did struggle in his first taste of Double-A ball. He pitched to a 2-10 record, 5.31 ERA and 1.552 WHIP over 21 starts in 2021.

He moved to the bullpen to start the 2022 season with High-A Wilmington, posting a 4-3 record, 2.92 ERA, 1.089 WHIP, 8.9 K/9 and 3.47 K/BB. That earned him a promotion to Harrisburg in July and a move back to the rotation. But he struggled again, going 2-5 with a 6.16 ERA and 1.474 WHIP in 11 starts.

The Nationals’ still believe in Cate’s stuff. He was ranked among the team’s minor leaguers in ERA, strikeouts and innings pitched last year. And he has often been cited by Baseball America as having the “Best Curveball” in Washington’s system in each of the past three full minor league seasons (2019, 2021, 2022). Baseball America also currently ranks the southpaw as the Nationals’ No. 28 prospect.

This year the Nats moved him to the bullpen full time with impressive results. And the move has been helpful for Cate, who is still readjusting to the role.

“I think it depends on the person individually,” he said of the difficulties for a pitcher moving from the rotation to the bullpen. “For me, I think it was a help. For me, probably the biggest transition is the amount of throwing. It's obviously less throwing that a starter would, but you're doing it every day. So in a sense, it's more throwing and less throwing, if that makes any sense. Just the frequency of it, you got to get used to and kind of build a routine that's a little bit different from being a starter. But I've had guys in the bullpen help me with building that routine and the coaches here, too. So I feel like it's been going pretty well.”

It’s going well enough that the coaching staff in Washington has noticed, while probably keeping their current bullpen predicament in mind.

Two weeks ago manager Davey Martinez was asked during his pregame press conference before the Nats opened a series against the Padres if he keeps up with some of the top minor leaguers in the system. Guys like James Wood, Robert Hassell III, Elijah Green and Brady House.

Martinez answered he does, but off the cuff mentioned Cate as well.

“I look at House and I look at (Wood, Hassell and Green),” he said. “But I also look at all the other guys in between because for me, you never know which guys are going to have that breakout and say, ‘Hey, you know what, this guy seems interesting.’

“The other day I looked at Tim Cate. He's left-handed. We moved him to the bullpen. He has been throwing the ball fairly well. I know the other day he got beat up a little bit (his last outing before he got hurt), but he's getting lefties out. And for me that's a good sign. Who knows? This kid might be someone that we can use later on in our bullpen being that we don't have any. It's nice to see him, because he started, it's nice to see him doing what he's doing in the bullpen.”

High praise from the skipper who surely wishes he had someone like Cate ready in Washington already.

And it meant a lot to Cate himself to hear that leadership in Washington is keeping an eye on him and all the minor league players, not just the top prospects.

“It's definitely cool,” he said. “It's definitely nice to know that the manager up there is keeping tabs on the minor league guys. It's a pick-me-up a little bit in terms of like, we're not that far away from being called up. You hear a lot like we're all a big family, like the organization is a big family. And to know that the major league manager is keeping tabs on all of us down here, it kind of reinforces that statement and makes us feel like that's a truthful statement.”

Cate isn’t a fix for the Nat’s lefty-less bullpen right now. But once fully healthy again and back to climbing the system ranks, he could be in the not too distant future.

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