Why the Nats now give young pitchers midseason breaks

ARLINGTON, Texas – Among the most pertinent questions facing the Nationals over the season’s final 3 1/2 months involve their top two pitching prospects. How soon will Cade Cavalli make his major league debut? And will Cole Henry make his in 2022?

The bad news: Neither is currently pitching for Triple-A Rochester, each having just been shut down for the moment, Henry while being placed on the minor league injured list with shoulder soreness.

The potentially good news: The Nats’ decision to shut both right-handers down now could be construed as evidence they intend to bring both up to the majors later this season.

How so? As general manager Mike Rizzo explained Friday afternoon, the organization is making a concerted effort to give its pitching prospects planned time off in the middle of the season in an attempt to ensure they still have fresh arms to be on the mound at the end of the season.

“You’ll see each starting pitcher will be skipped throughout the season; usually at the 10-start mark we try to skip a start or push a start back,” Rizzo said prior to Friday’s series opener against the Rangers. “That’s the situation with Cavalli, (Rodney) Theophile, (Jake) Irvin and those guys. They’ll get pushed back a start or two, just to give them a blow. No physical abnormalities there.”

Rizzo said Cavalli, the 2020 first-round pick and the organization’s top pitching prospect, isn’t dealing with any kind of physical issue right now. The 23-year-old has made 12 starts for Rochester, posting a 4.87 ERA, 1.291 WHIP and 56 strikeouts in 57 1/3 innings. He’ll now get a week or two off, then return to pitching after that, presumably for the remainder of the season barring any setbacks.

Henry, the 2020 second-round pick who dominated in seven starts at Double-A Harrisburg, is dealing with a sore shoulder after two starts at Triple-A and has gone on the IL. Rizzo described that ailment as minor and suggested this was a good time for the 22-year-old to take a break anyway.

“We want them to pitch throughout the whole season,” the GM said. “So we figure if they get their 25 starts, we’re going to spread them out a little bit. And we think after about 10 starts is a good time to give them a breather. Now, with Cavalli, I think this will be his 12th start and we’re giving him a break, too. That’s just our minor league protocol for players.”

It may be their current protocol for minor league pitchers, but it’s not their previous protocol for pitchers in the organization. A decade ago, Rizzo came under plenty of criticism for his decision to shut down Stephen Strasburg in early September despite the Nationals’ presence in a pennant race for the first time in club history. At the time, he insisted spacing out Strasburg’s starts or giving him a midseason break would be detrimental to his long-term health.

All these years later, the organizational philosophy seems to be adapting. Now there’s a willingness to give young pitchers a midseason break in an attempt to make sure they still have innings in the tank come August and September.

“I think we’re putting the onus on playing deep into the season, though the minor league season and being available beyond,” Rizzo said. “Because our plan is always to play through October. So I think we’ve kind of adapted that, kind of morphed into that being the best way to achieve the goals. The goal for player development is to develop these guys mentally, physically and emotionally to finish a full major league season.”

And how tough is it to convince these young pitchers such a plan is in their best interests?

“Their job is to pitch, and their job is to get to the big leagues,” Rizzo said. “So they figure the more they pitch, the better chance they have to get to the big leagues. That’s why we have to give them a global view of their career, and how to not only get ready to get to the big leagues, but to stay in the big leagues and to achieve what we want them to achieve in the big leagues.”

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