Cavalli sharp in rehab debut; Thomas heading to Harrisburg

It happened on a back field in West Palm Beach, under a blazing hot sun, against a lineup made up of much younger prospects (plus one established big leaguer). But it was a competitive baseball game, the first one Cade Cavalli had pitched in since March 2023, when he tore his elbow ligament and required Tommy John surgery.

Cavalli’s first official rehab start took place this morning at the Florida Complex League. Pitching for the Nationals’ Rookie-level minor league affiliate, the right-hander tossed 2 2/3 innings of scoreless ball, striking out five and allowing only two batters from the Astros’ FCL affiliate to reach base against him.

“It’s awesome,” said manager Davey Martinez, who watched video of the outing. “It’s a process, and he’s done really well. I know he feels like he’s ahead of the game, but we had to stay with what we know about this Tommy John stuff and make sure his progressions are what they should be. And he’s done really well with it.”

Cavalli threw 44 pitches, a base point for him as he now builds his arm back up during the final stages of his rehab. His fastball registered 97 mph. The only hit he surrendered came against Jose Abreu, the veteran slugger the Astros sent all the way down to rookie ball to get his career back on track.

Barring any post-start complications, Cavalli will be back on a mound in five days, adding to his innings and pitch count. Over the course of the next month, he should work his way up the organizational ladder, pitching for multiple minor league affiliates.

Rehab assignments for pitchers are capped at 30 days, so the Nationals will have to make a decision on Cavalli within a month. If healthy and built up, he could join the big league rotation by mid-to-late June. If club officials believe he needs more work, they could activate him off the 60-day injured list but option him to Triple-A Rochester and have him continue to develop as a healthy minor leaguer.

“We’ll get to that point with him,” Martinez said of the team’s 2020 first-round pick. “I think, right now, we love where he’s at. We’re in no big rush to try to get him here, per se. We just want to continue to develop him. He’s going to be here, as we all know. But we want to make sure we continue the process with him, and that he’s able to go out there, compete and throw six-plus innings. And then we’ll see where he’s at from there.”

Cavalli, 25, has made only one major league start, in August 2022. He was primed to make the Opening Day rotation in 2023 before suffering his injury during a spring training start against the Mets.

Today’s start was a major milestone in his recovery, coming 14 months after ligament replacement surgery. The Nationals hope the extended rehab process will ultimately benefit him.

“I honestly believe where he’s at right now, it’s a better version of him,” Martinez said. “Because his mechanics are a lot cleaner. He’s pounding the strike zone really well right now, and he’s still 96-97. He worked really hard understanding how to use his legs. Everything’s really clean. The whole thing is to prevent him from getting hurt again. I love where he’s at right now. I think he’s better now than he was. I called him the Old Cade. Now he’s the New Cade. He’s been really good.”

* Lane Thomas will begin his rehab assignment Tuesday with Double-A Harrisburg, setting up the outfielder to come off the 10-day IL later this week.

Thomas, out since April 23 with an MCL sprain in his left knee, is scheduled to take three or four at-bats Tuesday for Harrisburg, which hosts Akron at 11 a.m. If all goes well, he’ll be back in the Senators lineup Wednesday night. After that, the Nationals will decide if he’s ready to return for this weekend’s series against the Mariners, or if he’ll remain in Harrisburg for a bit longer.

“We’ve got a checklist of stuff we want to see him do,” Martinez said. “And we’ll see how he comes out of it after all that. Hopefully there’s no soreness, he feels good and he can go out there and play again tomorrow.”

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