There may no prospect in baseball, certainly no pitching prospect, whose stock has risen around the sport this season more than Cade Cavalli. The Nationals felt all along they had something special in their 2020 first-round draft pick. Now the rest of the industry is catching on and recognizing the right-hander’s immense talent and potential, which was on full display during the All-Star Futures Game in Colorado last week.
Cavalli is not, however, a finished product yet. Not even close, given his inability to pitch professionally last year and the delayed start to this year’s minor league season.
Mike Rizzo knows all that. And it’s why the Nationals’ longtime general manager is being careful not to raise the expectations bar - or the timeline for an eventual promotion to the big leagues - too high for the No. 1 prospect in his system.
“His stuff is great, we can all see that,” Rizzo said earlier this week in a lengthy session with beat reporters on the field at Nationals Park. “He’s got four quality pitches. He throws extremely hard. He’s extremely poised. He’s got the build to pitch in the big leagues and to handle the rigors of it. But as you said, he’s never pitched professionally before this season. And even in college, he played a position player along with pitching. So he’s really new to the position of pitching. He’s got great stuff, and he’s come a long way in a short period of time.”
Cavalli opened the season at high Single-A Wilmington and proved himself far superior to the rest of the competition at that level. In seven starts for the Blue Rocks, he went 3-1 with a 1.77 ERA and an overwhelming 71-to-12 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 40 2/3 innings.
That earned Cavalli a quick promotion to Double-A Harrisburg. And that level has proven more challenging for the 22-year-old, who in five starts for the Senators is 0-3 with a 5.52 ERA, 35 strikeouts and 19 walks in 23 2/3 innings.
The difference, as so often in the case for young pitchers, is the improved approaches and strike zone command of hitters at the upper levels of the minors.
“To me, the difference between pitching in the minor leagues and the big leagues is you have to get people out in the strike zone in the big leagues, because they don’t chase nearly as much as they do in the minor leagues,” Rizzo said. “So I think when he proves, when he’s logged more innings and has shown that he’s ready for the big leagues, we’re certainly not going to stand in his way. And we foresee big things in the future for him.”
That future may not come quite as fast as some might hope. With the Nationals rotation struggling to pitch consistently beyond ace Max Scherzer, it’s not uncommon for the notion of Cavalli making his major league debut later this season to be raised.
Rizzo didn’t flat-out shoot down that possibility, but he gave no indication it’s in the organization’s plans at this point. Even if Cavalli proved he was ready to pitch at this level, the Nationals are paying extreme attention to his workload in his first professional season and expect to limit his innings the rest of the way, just as they’ve done with fellow prospects Jackson Rutledge, Cole Henry and Matt Cronin.
“Yeah, we’re cognizant of his pitch count, everybody’s pitch count,” Rizzo said. “You’ve noticed we’ve shut down Rutledge for a period of time; now he’s coming back. We did the same thing with Henry, and we did it with Cronin. We’re giving them kind of a time out to rest themselves and to get back into the swing of things. We’ll do the same thing with Cavalli, where we’ve got a plan in place with him. He’ll finish the minor league season and probably pitch out of, I’d imagine he’ll pitch in the Arizona Fall League this year, and he’ll have plenty innings. From where he’s come from, to where he’ll be at the end of the season, it’ll be a good workload for him.”