Cavalli's departure was a familiar scene for Nats

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. – For 43 minutes Tuesday afternoon, the Nationals watched Cade Cavalli mow down the Mets and allowed themselves to dream a bit. The organization’s top pitching prospect was as electric as he’s been all spring, maybe the best he’s looked anytime he’s worn a major league uniform.

With an upper-90s fastball, two different types of sharp breaking balls and an occasional changeup, the 24-year-old right-hander looked every bit the part of a future ace, one of the cornerstones of the organization’s rebuilding efforts.

“The thing is, you saw what he can possibly be,” manager Davey Martinez said. “But we’ve got to get him healthy.”

Martinez said this a few minutes after the Nationals’ 5-0 exhibition victory was over, roughly 1 hour and 45 minutes after Cavalli threw an 87-mph changeup in the bottom of the third that landed way off target and left him shaking his right arm in discomfort.

All the positive vibes from those first 43 minutes went up in flames as club officials watched the young hurler’s reaction to that pitch and feared the worst. Cavalli is set to undergo an MRI today on his right elbow, and it may take a day or two and multiple views by multiple doctors before a final diagnosis is revealed. But make no mistake: The Nationals are worried he tore his ulnar collateral ligament, which would require season-ending Tommy John surgery.

It would be a devastating blow to a team that has pinned so much of this building year on the growth of three young starters: Cavalli, MacKenzie Gore and Josiah Gray. There’s only so much growth a guy can experience, though, if he’s injured.

It would be one thing if the Nationals’ farm system was loaded with pitching prospects. But it’s not, at least not at the upper levels of the system. There’s no other top-rated arm waiting in the wings to make his major league debut. Jake Irvin and Jackson Rutledge may blossom into fine big league starters, but neither is threatening to crack Major League Baseball’s top-100 prospects list at this point.

Cavalli already had the rug pulled out from under him late last summer, when he made his highly anticipated major league debut and then revealed shoulder soreness the following day and was shut down the remainder of the season.

He’s still young, only 24, and he was drafted less than three years ago. So there’s still plenty of time for him to develop and blossom into a front-line big league starter. But major surgery now would make this a lost season and leave him as a huge question mark heading into 2024.

That doesn’t necessarily mean the Nationals’ timeline to return to contention would be delayed, though.

Consider this: Jordan Zimmermann had Tommy John surgery in August 2009 and missed the majority of the 2010 season, then Stephen Strasburg had Tommy John surgery in August 2010 and missed the majority of the 2011 season. Both wound up anchoring a division-winning rotation in 2012.

A whole lot of other things have to go right for the Nationals to build a winner in the next two years. They need Gore and Gray to be healthy and live up to expectations. They need Keibert Ruiz and CJ Abrams and Luis García to continue to develop into stalwarts. They need more prospects to debut and become the real deal. And they need ownership to be willing to start spending on free agents again to bolster what they already have in-house.

But if all that happens, there’s still reason to believe Cavalli can be a big part of this organization’s next winning team, and that it can still happen by 2025.

If you watched Cavalli’s start Tuesday, you might have had more than a few flashbacks to Aug. 21, 2010, when a rookie Strasburg marched into Citizens Bank Park and blew away an elite Phillies lineup for five innings before throwing one unfortunate changeup that left him shaking his right arm in discomfort.

We don’t know yet if Cavalli’s incident Tuesday will produce the same outcome, but it’s helpful to remember the Nationals have experienced this before and still emerged in a better place.

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