Reporting to the first day of spring training as rookies must feel a lot like a freshman arriving on campus for the first day of high school. But instead of being surrounded by jocks, cliques and faculty, you’re stepping into a clubhouse full of world champions, a World Series MVP, a Cy Young Award winner and All-Stars.
OK, so in a sense, still jocks.
But for the sake of the analogy, if spring training is like high school, then rookies are freshman, veterans are upperclassmen, coaches are teachers, the manager is the counselor and the general manager is the principal.
That is what the Nationals’ two most recent first-round draft picks, right-handers Jackson Rutledge and Cade Cavalli, are getting acquainted with this spring. And although both got a taste of big league workouts during last year’s summer camp and at the team’s alternate training site, there is nothing quite like being invited to your first major league spring training.
They were essentially just learning how to learn.
Rutledge, 21, and Cavalli, 22, have been to the Nationals’ facilities in West Palm Beach before, both taking part in last year’s fall instructional league at the end of the regular season, but it won’t be the same now that they are working out every day with the likes of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin and Jon Lester. They now have the opportunity to pitch in front of the veterans, the major league coaching staff and front office execs.
With this opportunity to showcase their talents also comes the opportunity to watch and learn, as general manager Mike Rizzo pointed out in his Zoom conference call at the start of spring training.
“Keep their ears open, their mouths closed and just observe how some of the great pitchers in Major League Baseball prepare for a season,” Rizzo outlined for Rutledge and Cavalli. “And show us what you got. They have a season to prepare for also, and it’s going to be an important season for them. We just want them to observe how some of the best in the business get their jobs done. And if you’re going to emulate somebody, we’ve got some good candidates to emulate that can really teach a young player, especially a young pitcher, how to conduct himself, how to prepare himself and how to get the most out of his performance. That’s kind of what we’re looking at with those young guys.”
An important season for them, indeed. Not so much on how they can help the Nationals at the major league level, but moreso how they continue to develop in the farm system.
A system, by the way, that has been consistently ranked last among the 30 major league teams since late last summer, and in which Rutledge and Cavalli have been rated as the No. 1 and No. 2 overall prospects, respectively, per MLBPipeline.com. Other publications have flip-flopped the two in recent rankings, but they have both remained in those top two spots in one order or the other.
A lot is expected of the two young righties. But they have a couple of years to fulfill those expectations. For now, they’re expected to show their stuff when called upon and soak up all the information they can.
“Yeah, I saw them both throw (Thursday). And obviously, they both threw the ball really well,” said manager Davey Martinez. “I just want them to come in and learn, you know, be a sponge and learn. I tell them all, I said, ‘Hey, you got some unbelievable veteran pitchers here. Watch them, talk about routines and just learn. Learn and take what you learn and absorb it and build, get some kind of routine.’ Those guys are good, tough. They’re very poised for young men. So I’m looking forward to watching them become big league pitchers. They all have the ability to do that.”
It’s also important for Rutledge and Cavalli to remember they’re not just observing the veteran pitchers. The upperclassmen are watching them as well.
“You just watch how they go about their business,” said Scherzer when asked what it’s like to have the young pitchers in camp. “How they are preparing for the season, what they’re trying to do with the baseball and try to understand what they can and can’t do with the baseball, what makes them good, and just try to highlight little things that make them better.
“Being a prospect is great. But being a major leaguer is better. And so what’s it going to take for these guys to be great at the major league level is the ultimate driving force for these guys. And so just being around them and trying to give them any little tidbit that you can to help them out, that’s what you’re supposed to do as a veteran.”
What could be even more exciting for the young guys is that they will have opportunities to take those tidbits and implement them in game situations before their time in the big league camp is up.
The counselor wants to see them utilize their skill sets.
“I’m just looking forward to watching these guys and getting them in a game,” said Martinez. “I spoke to all of them. They’re going to get in a game, they’re going to pitch, they’re going to get some innings. But I don’t want anything to change. The biggest thing for me is strike one, command the strike zone, and I think they all know that.”
While the main focal point in camp for Rutledge and Cavalli is to absorb information and learn how to be professional pitchers, at the end of the day, they are still ballplayers. And ballplayers play ball, instead of just sitting and watching from the sidelines.
Plus, nothing is set in stone. Yes, the Nationals at some point will send their top two prospects down to the minors, where they will start their seasons. And yes, their ETAs to the major leagues aren’t for a couple of more years. But that doesn’t mean the door isn’t open for the possibility of earlier debuts.
The principal has big plans for the futures of the freshmen.
“We want to see those guys pitch,” explained Rizzo. “And who’s to say they won’t help us sometime as early as (2021). They have the size, the delivery, the stuff, the mental makeup to be impact pitchers in the big leagues.
“As we’ve shown in the past, we’re not afraid to bring young players to the big leagues when maybe other people in the industry think it’s too early.”