It was only 25 light throws from 45 feet, the kind of mundane activity anyone who has ever picked up a baseball has engaged in countless times. For Cade Cavalli, Tuesday’s activity was anything but mundane.
For the first time since he underwent Tommy John surgery in March, the Nationals’ top pitching prospect played catch. And while this was merely the first of many thresholds still to cross before he returns to a big league mound, the significance was not lost on the right-hander.
“I have been visualizing that moment since pretty much the time I tore (my elbow ligament),” he said. “And now that it’s here, it was very surreal. It felt great. It did feel weird the first couple of throws, trying to find that slot again. But once I found it and felt comfortable in it, it was awesome. I don’t know how else to describe it but awesome. It was a great feeling.”
Cavalli has spent the majority of this season rehabbing at the Nationals’ spring training complex in West Palm Beach, Fla. It’s a lonely, tedious experience, especially those first several months that include zero baseball activities.
When the time finally came to let him throw for the first time, the club decided to bring Cavalli to D.C. and have him throw in the outfield prior to batting practice Tuesday afternoon, with assistant athletic trainer Jon Kotredes on the receiving end of the throws.
“It was really cool to have it happen at Nats Park, because I was in Florida and I wasn’t expecting to be here this week for my first throw,” he said. “So whenever I was visualizing it, it was in Florida. It was even better to have the first toss here. It was so cool.”
Cavalli’s rehab, by all accounts, has gone according to plan, with no notable setbacks. He’ll continue to ramp up his throwing program from this point on, building throughout the offseason before reporting to spring training.
A 12-month rehab would have Cavalli ready for Opening Day, but the Nationals have suggested all along they are likely to hold him back and aim for a return to big league action at some point during the first half of the 2024 season. With the 25-year-old sure to be on a strict innings limit, the club wants to try to ensure he’s able to finish the season without being shut down.
“The date we’re trying to shoot for is sometime in June, hopefully,” he said. “But this is a very long process. It’s over the span of 14 months, sometimes more if you need it. We just want to make sure the tendon, everything is right before we really get to that. It’s just a whole lot of trust and paying attention to the body.”
If everything goes according to plan, the Nationals hope to add Cavalli to a 2024 rotation that should include fellow young starters MacKenzie Gore, Josiah Gray, Jake Irvin and perhaps Jackson Rutledge. Cavalli, the club’s first-round pick in the 2020 draft, said he’s been watching all of those pitchers navigate their way through the season and is eager to join them.
There’s still a long way to go, though. Though he reached a major milestone Tuesday, he’s still only about halfway through the entire rehab process.
What has Cavalli realized during these initial six months?
“I miss baseball a ton, that’s what I know,” he said. “Whenever I threw it, it was very emotional. … I knew how much I missed it, but when that ball came out, it was like, dang, I really, really miss this. It just gives you that fire to be able to get back and go compete at something you love.”