We spend the majority of our time here talking about major leaguers, but with the lockout now preventing teams from making any transactions involving players on 40-man rosters, let's take an opportunity to delve deeper into some of the Nationals' top minor leaguers. We'll start this weekly series with the organization's No. 1 prospect ...
RHP CADE CAVALLI
Height/weight: 6-foot-4, 230 lbs.
Age on opening day 2022: 23
How acquired: First-round pick, 2020 draft, University of Oklahoma
2021 stats (Single-A Wilmington): 3-1, 1.77 ERA, 7 GS, 40 2/3 IP, 24 H, 9 R, 8 ER, 1 HR, 12 BB, 71 SO, 2 HBP, 0.885 WHIP, .171 Opp. AVG
2021 stats (Double-A Harrisburg): 3-3, 2.79 ERA, 11 GS, 58 IP, 39 H, 19 R, 18 ER, 2 HR, 35 BB, 80 SO, 0 HBP, 1.276 WHIP, .188 Opp. AVG
2021 stats (Triple-A Rochester): 1-5, 7.30 ERA, 6 GS, 24 2/3 IP, 33 H, 21 R, 20 ER, 2 HR, 13 BB, 24 SO, 4 HBP, 1.865 WHIP, .317 Opp. AVG
2021 analysis: Given the lack of a minor league season in 2020, not to mention the lack of upper-end prospects in the Nationals' minor league system entering the season, all eyes were fixated on Cade Cavalli when he made his professional debut this year. The club decided to start him out at high-Single-A, and it quickly became apparent the hitters at that level were no match for him.
Cavalli dominated in Wilmington, striking out a whopping 15.7 batters per nine innings. So after seven starts, he was bumped up to Double-A Harrisburg, where he continued to mow away hitters (12.4 strikeouts per nine innings), but did see his walk rate spike as more disciplined hitters laid off the electric pitches he fired just off the plate.
The Nats could've elected to let Cavalli finish his season there and end with dominant numbers, but they decided to see how he would handle Triple-A in September. The answer: not as well. His strikeout rate went down (8.8 per nine innings) and he gave up a lot more loud contact, leading to some inflated numbers.
What led to those struggles in Rochester?
"I've seen every start he had this whole season on video, and my assessment is he wore down at the end of the season," general manager Mike Rizzo said. "Better competition, worn-down pitcher, but the developmental part of Cavalli could not have gone better. He made every start, he threw deep in the games every time he pitched, his stuff was good. And he finished his season with still the same stuff that he started with (for) a guy who did not pitch much last year, obviously, because nobody did. ...
"So you got yourself a good young arm, that's a fresh arm, and got through a full season. Started in A-ball and ended in Triple-A, and it couldn't have gone better for him."
2022 outlook: As he was cruising through Single-A and Double-A lineups, it was only natural to wonder if Cavalli was on track to make the Nationals' opening day rotation next spring. That seemed like an overly optimistic goal, though, and sure enough his struggles at Triple-A reminded everyone it's not that simple. Not that anyone should be discouraged: Very few draft picks are pitching at Triple-A one year later, so the fact the right-hander even reached that level speaks volumes about his advanced repertoire and (most importantly) makeup.
But we should probably not be too quick to insert Cavalli straight into the Nats' 2022 rotation. You never say never, and if he truly looks ready at the end of spring training, you might be able to make the case for it. But in all likelihood, he'll be best-served opening at Rochester again and enjoying some success before he gets the inevitable call sometime in May or June.
Cavalli's stuff (upper 90s fastball, curveball, slider, changeup) should play very well in the big leagues. But he's still learning how to really pitch, and that process just takes time, no matter how talented you are. The Nationals have high hopes for him, and rightfully so, but given the situation they're now in, there's no reason to rush him. And when he does get promoted to D.C. for the first time, they should make it clear he's here to stay, no matter the results. It's OK to let him learn how to fail, something they couldn't really afford to do with some previous top pitching prospects who were thrust into the middle of pennant races.