With no minor leagues, Cavalli made most of alternate camp

Cade Cavalli could justifiably look at the summer of 2020 and be bitter he missed out on his first season of professional baseball. With no minor leagues and no opponents to face, the Nationals’ first-round pick could only spend the last two months working out every single day at the club’s alternate training site in Fredericksburg, pitching simulated games to the same group of hitters over and over and over.

You’ll hear no such complaints from Cavalli. If anything, you’ll hear nothing but enthusiasm about an unusual, but in the 22-year-old’s mind, worthwhile first summer as a pro.

“The routine has been awesome, and the communication and the coaching,” he said Saturday during a Zoom session with reporters. “I’m absolutely in love with this environment. I feel like I’ve gotten 100 times better down here. Even though it was the same thing every day, I absolutely enjoyed it.”

While others lamented the Groundhog Day-like vibe of the Fredericksburg camp, Cavalli relished every minute of it. Rather than whine about the traditional minor league season he didn’t get, the right-hander decided to make the most of this unprecedented opportunity to work alongside experienced pitchers and hitters as he began his trek to the majors.

The Fredericksburg guys played simulated games each day, trying to stick to a similar schedule to the Nationals. They didn’t have enough fielders to fill every position on the field at times, and the rules of these scrimmages were pretty loose. But for young prospects like Cavalli, there were invaluable lessons to be learned.

Sure, he would’ve liked to face different hitters every day, not to mention pitch in competitive ballgames. But then he never would’ve had to think about how much work goes into getting big league hitters out after they’ve seen your entire repertoire and pitching approach.

Thumbnail image for Cade Cavalli Throws Oklahoma Sidebar.jpg“Personally, I think it was the best thing we could’ve had in this environment,” he said. “You face the same guys, and they’ve seen your stuff. So you have to get creative. And it’s like that when you go to the (major leagues). They’re going to see you a couple times. Gotta get creative. It’s part of pitching. I think that’s the awesome and fun part of pitching. You’ve got to know how to sequence them. You’ve got to go execute it, that’s the biggest thing. You’ve just got to stay in control, let your mind think clearly against these hitters.”

The hitters who had the misfortune of facing Cavalli every day came away impressed. Not just because of his exceptional stuff - an upper 90s fastball, a curveball and a changeup - but because of the growth he showed as the summer progressed, capped by Saturday’s six-inning, 100-pitch start.

“It’s been cool for me, just in the three weeks I’ve been here, I’ve been able to see him make certain improvements on the mound,” said shortstop Jackson Cluff, a 2019 draft pick who was added to the camp roster after others were injured. “First of all, he was just trying to blow it by people, and he struggled with his command a little bit. But the last two weeks, he’s been pretty polished as far as when he throws his off-speed and getting ahead of hitters with that fastball. ...

“When he can throw all those pitches for strikes like he did today, that’s dangerous. That’s scary. I’m glad he’s with the Nats and not with someone else.”

With the Fredericksburg camp winding down, Cavalli and other prospects and minor leaguers who need more work are heading to West Palm Beach, Fla., for a modified fall instructional league. Then the righty will enjoy a winter off before returning for his first professional spring training and - hopefully - his first minor league season.

And, if he truly did make the most of his unexpected opportunity this summer, he might just find himself pitching in Washington sooner than he may have had 2020 been a normal year.

“I’m just trying to be down here and learn and grow,” Cavalli said. “And whenever they think I’m ready, I’m ready. But I know mentally I’m always preparing for that. In my head, I’m working to become the best that I can be.

“I want to be elite in the big leagues. I don’t want to just make it. I want to become elite and be the best I can be.”

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