How will Nats know Cavalli is ready for big league debut?

It’s a question that is being asked a lot nowadays. It might be the most popular question surrounding the Nationals now that the trade deadline has passed, CJ Abrams has made his debut, MacKenzie Gore’s rehab plan has come more into focus and we’re in the home stretch of the season.

When will top pitching prospect Cade Cavalli make his major league debut?

The Nationals have been very open about taking a cautious approach with their former first-round pick, not wanting to rush a young pitcher who was a two-way player in college and is only in his second full professional season.

“You also have to remember, he did have a great college career, but he didn’t pitch much,” general manager Mike Rizzo said of Cavalli on Wednesday during his weekly appearance with “The Sports Junkies” on 106.7 The Fan. “He was a two-way player. He’s really new to pitching. And he’s really learned fast and on the run. When you talk about a guy who had a limited amount of innings in high school and college that he has, he made a meteoric rise through the minor league rankings. And I think he’s just scratching the surface. He’s going to be a good big league pitcher for us. I’m excited to see him when he gets here. And when the reports are that he’s ready to come to the big leagues, we certainly will not hesitate to bring him here.”

So maybe the question should be: When the reports say Cavalli’s ready, what will that look like?

“For me, it's always about consistency,” manager Davey Martinez said. “He's starting to get it. We're starting to watch him. He's starting to throw a lot more strikes than balls. He's competing, high-leverage. I look at all of the high-leverage stuff. When he gets himself into a situation, how well he gets out of it. And he's doing a lot better.”

Cavalli, the Nats' No. 4 prospect per MLB Pipeline, has been doing a lot better, especially recently.

After flying up the farm system with his electric fastball last year, he was grounded a little bit when he reached Triple-A Rochester at the end of August. In six starts with the Red Wings to end the season, Cavalli went 1-5 with a 7.30 ERA and 1.865 WHIP. Impressive that he made it to Triple-A in his first pro season, but he clearly still had more development to do.

Although he ran into similar issues to start this season with a 7.62 ERA over his first seven starts at Rochester, Cavalli has settled into a consistent groove since late May.

Starting on May 22, Cavalli has a 2.12 ERA with a 1.021 WHIP in 63 ⅔ innings over his last 12 outings. He has lowered his season ERA to 3.82 and WHIP to 1.185 in 19 starts this season.

“We talked to him a lot earlier about changeups,” Martinez said. “He's throwing a lot more changeups now, so that's awesome. His breaking ball, he's landing it for strikes, which is great. So it's coming.

“Like I said, he goes out there and he has a few outings where he's consistent, we get him up there where he could throw six-plus innings, then we'll feel that he probably can come up here and help us. Right now the biggest thing for us is getting our guys to get through the sixth inning, and we need that.”

The Nationals certainly need that. Entering yesterday’s finale with the Cubs, the Nats rotation had a major league-worst 6.08 ERA and the third-fewest innings in the National League.

While the strikeouts remain high and the walks are coming down (he has a 2.67 strikeout-to-walk rate this season), Cavalli is still working on getting deeper into games. He’s averaging about 4 ⅔ innings per start, but he has completed seven innings four times, including in his last start on Saturday. He yielded just three hits and one run while striking out 11 and walking two as he retired the last 14 batters he faced against the Norfolk Tides, the Triple-A affiliate of the best farm system in baseball with the Orioles.

For comparison’s sake, Nationals starters have only combined to complete seven innings six times this year.

“We can't have him come up and go four innings because it'll kill our bullpen,” Martinez said. “And I think they all understand it. I know (Rochester pitching coach) Rafael Chavez down there is working with these guys to go deeper in games. Then it's all about throwing consistent strikes. He's had a couple of good outings in a row. And he's been doing everything we've asked him to do, so it's been good.”

Cavalli has been even better if you look at his more recent starts, posting a 1.42 ERA with 35 strikeouts and just nine walks over 31 ⅔ innings.

“He’s getting better each and every start,” Rizzo said. “You’ve got a pitcher that’s got good stuff. He’s really starting to come on with his third pitch, which he’s put a lot of work into his changeup. That looks like it’s going to be a good pitch for him at the big league level.”

The 24-year-old’s next scheduled start is Saturday at the Worcester Red Sox. Assuming his recent trend continues, it might be time to keep an eye on the schedule and current big league pitchers to try to map out a timeline for Cavalli’s debut.

With struggling starters and three off-days over the next two weeks, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Cavalli take the mound at Nationals Park during the next homestand against the Reds and Athletics.

And for those who are worrying about the budding star’s service time, don’t. Cavalli will retain his rookie status this year as long as he's on the major league roster for less than 45 days and pitches less than 50 innings. Forty-five days until the end of the season on Oct. 5 is Sunday, so he can join the major league roster after his next start and still be a rookie in 2023.

Just sit back, wait and enjoy the excitement of another top prospect making his major league debut. (Especially after last night's news that Cole Henry, the Nats' No. 6 prospect, will have thoracic outlet surgery on Aug. 28.)

“Obviously, we all know about Cavalli and we all know about some of our young pitchers that'll be here,” Martinez said. “I'm excited about what the future lies for us here, especially with these young guys.”

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