Cavalli: "I'm going to be back, and I'm going to better, I promise"

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Cade Cavalli sat down in Davey Martinez’s office Wednesday evening, with Mike Rizzo also in attendance, and braced for the news from his manager and general manager. What they told him about the MRI taken of his elbow earlier that morning – a full tear of the ulnar collateral ligament, requiring Tommy John surgery – stung like few pieces of news the right-hander has ever received, and it took the Nationals’ 24-year-old pitching prospect a little while to come to grips with it before he was ready to pivot to the challenge now facing him.

“I gave myself a little bit of time to cry and to hurt,” Cavalli said. “But during that meeting with them, it was just like: It is what it is, and it’s time. It was a little flip switch, and I’m ready. I am. I’m ready to rock. I’m going to be back, and I’m going to be better, I promise.”

Speaking with reporters this afternoon, roughly 48 hours since he injured himself throwing a pitch against the Mets and 24 hours since he got the official diagnosis, Cavalli detailed the emotions he’s experienced since and the determination he now has to return healthy in 2024.

Cavalli will fly to Dallas on Monday and undergo ligament replacement surgery Wednesday, performed by renowned orthopedist Keith Meister. He faces a rehab process of at least 12 months, with the possibility he’ll be ready to open the 2024 season on time but the understanding it may take longer than that.

“It’s frustrating for him,” Rizzo said. “He’s a competitor. And he was on the verge of his first major league Opening Day and being a big part of what we’re doing here, and now he’s got to take a step back and rehab, and the isolation and the loneliness that that entails. The strong survive it and come out the other end better for it. I believe he’s one of that group, and I’m looking forward to watching him progress through his rehab and watching him come out the other side of it and really get after it again.”

Cavalli said he hadn’t felt any arm issues at any previous point this spring, nor after throwing any of his previous pitches during what was shaping up to be a dominant start against the Mets on Tuesday. But as soon as he released his 1-1 pitch to Brandon Nimmo in the bottom of the third – an 87-mph changeup that sailed high and wide of the strike zone – he realized something wasn’t right.

“The best I can describe it is, I threw it and I felt a little tug down here in the back of the elbow and (felt) just kind of a zing go through my arm,” the rookie said. “You never want to feel that. I tried to shake it out, but it was feeling very uncomfortable, and that’s when they came out there.

“I just couldn’t believe it was happening in the moment, because when you give everything you have into taking care of your body, it’s just something you don’t plan on. You never even think about it happening, and when it does, it’s there.”

Cavalli, the Nationals’ first-round pick in the 2020 draft, becomes the latest in a long line of pitchers from the organization to need Tommy John surgery. Jordan Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg were two of the most noteworthy success stories, each returning one year later and helping lead the franchise to multiple playoff appearances before eventually succumbing to other injuries. Joe Ross and Seth Romero are among those who were never the same after the surgery.

The Nats were counting on big things this season from Cavalli, who made his major league debut last August but was shut down after that with shoulder inflammation. Along with MacKenzie Gore and Josiah Gray, he was expected to be part of a young pitching threesome that could develop into the club’s next rotation stalwarts.

Now they’ll open the season with only two of those three, filling out the rest of the rotation with veterans Patrick Corbin and Trevor Williams, plus likely 30-year-old right-hander Chad Kuhl, who came to came on a minor league deal but is first in line to fill Cavalli’s role.

Asked about the possibility of looking for pitching help outside the organization, Rizzo responded: “We like the depth we have here, but we’re not against looking outside the organization. If something makes sense to us, of course, we’ll certainly look outside and inside.”

Cavalli will try to lend support however he can from afar. He’ll probably spend much of the summer rehabbing here in Florida, a lonely existence for any rehabbing player, especially one who knows how long the road back to a big league mound is from this surgery.

He'll do so while in possession of a T-shirt given to him today by Martinez. Printed across the chest is "Always ..." and beneath it are words of inspiration written in ink by teammates: "Be persistent." "Stay positive." "Grow." "Keep working."

“It hurts, really bad, because I want to be out there competing with them more than anything,” he said. “That’s what’s killing me. But at the same time, I put my eye black on, and it’s time to go to war with this. I’m ready for the fight back. I plan on dominating every aspect that I can.”

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Starting lineups: Nats vs. Mets in West Palm Beach

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