Cade Cavalli set to make MLB debut for Nationals vs. Reds

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SEATTLE — Twice this season, the Washington Nationals rested Cade Cavalli for about two weeks, wanting their top pitching prospect to last through the summer and into the first days of fall. At the front of their minds, as the front office and coaches plotted the next steps of a rebuild — and as Cavalli kept proving himself in Rochester, one start at a time — was the distinct chance that a full year could amount to a debut in DC, giving fans and a last-place team a new arm to hang some hope on.

In a way, prospects are only ideas until they materialize in the majors. Now here comes Cavalli, set to debut against the Cincinnati Reds at Nationals Park on Friday night. The 24-year-old was informed of his promotion Wednesday morning. Not two hours later, ahead of a 3-1 win over the Mariners at T-Mobile Park, Manager Dave Martinez made the formal announcement in his office.

“We’re excited,” Martinez said. “He checked a lot of the boxes.”

As a boy, Cade Cavalli jotted down his goals and ambitions. Now his dreams are becoming reality.

What is known about Cavalli: At 6-foot-4, he throws a high-90s fastball, a curve, a slider and a change-up. Until the Nationals traded Juan Soto and Josh Bell on Aug. 2, Cavalli was the consensus top player in their minor league system. After the deal, ranking sites listed him in the top three, and he remained the best pitcher. He was a two-way player at Oklahoma before lasering his focus on pitching in 2020. The coronavirus pandemic cut his breakout short. No matter, Washington saw enough to draft Cavalli with the 22nd pick that summer. He grew up in Tulsa and smiles a lot. He also cuts his own hair and offers a reliable service to teammates.

And then what is not known: how Cavalli, someone still relatively new to pitching, will make the leap from the Class AAA Red Wings to the Nationals. Or how, looking past a series opener with the Reds, Washington’s rotation could look a year from now, let alone in two or three. Cavalli will join 24-year-old starter Josiah Gray, who will have his next turn skipped so the Nationals can manage his innings down the stretch. MacKenzie Gore, a 23-year-old lefty acquired in the Soto-Bell trade, threw a very light bullpen Wednesday and is aiming to return from an elbow injury in September.

With those three pitchers, there’s a blurry vision for a future staff. Cavalli’s arrival, in the bigger picture, is just a single step.

“With all of our young guys, part of the process is patience,” Martinez said Wednesday. “We’re going to get him up here and get him going and see how he does. But he’s done well in Rochester, really well, as the numbers will indicate.”

The loudest of those numbers is a 1.47 ERA in his past seven starts for the Red Wings. And after leading the entire minor leagues in strikeouts last year, Cavalli has struck out close to 10 batters per nine innings this season.

To make room for him on the active roster, the Nationals optioned right-hander Cory Abbott to Rochester after Wednesday’s victory. They already have the 40-man roster space after designating reliever Tyler Clippard for assignment Tuesday. As for the rotation, Cavalli will be followed by Paolo Espino and Patrick Corbin for the rest of the Reds series. Erick Fedde and Aníbal Sánchez will probably start the following week, pitching ahead of Cavalli against the Oakland Athletics. Home matchups with the Reds and A’s, both stripped-down clubs, are a good soft launch for a young pitcher.

After Cavalli, there could be a significant pause before the next homegrown pitcher. Cole Henry, promoted to Rochester earlier this season, is set to undergo surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome this month. Jackson Rutledge, the team’s top pick in 2019, has battled injuries and is figuring it out with the low-Class A Fredericksburg Nationals. Andry Lara, a well-regarded righty, is 19 and in Fredericksburg. Jarlin Susana, a fireballer netted in the Soto-Bell deal, is 18 and just joined Rutledge and Lara at the low-level affiliate.

That doesn’t mean another pitcher can’t climb the ranks. Jake Irvin, a 25-year-old with the Class-AA Harrisburg Senators, is a candidate to do so down the line. In July, the Nationals used their second-round pick on Jake Bennett, a 21-year-old left-hander who went to the same college and high school as Cavalli. But even if Irvin clicks and Bennett emerges quickly, a ton rides on how Cavalli transitions to the highest level. A ton rides, too, on how much Cavalli, Gore and Gray can shoulder as a group.

Those answers won’t be clear when Cavalli throws his first pitch Friday. For now, the few truths are that Washington promoted him because he flashed better command and is throwing his secondary pitches in the zone more — and that he’s expected to get a handful of opportunities as the season winds down. Two starts ago, he struck out 11 for the Red Wings. In his last outing, he needed 109 pitches to record 15 outs, a sign of growing pains that will trail him from Rochester to DC

“We’re going to have to take our time with him. He’s still learning a lot of different things,” Martinez said. “But his stuff definitely plays.”

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