Cavalli embracing challenges, competition at camp

Nats' top-ranked prospect impressive vs. Cards, eyes big league debut in 2022

March 25th, 2022

JUPITER, Fla. -- As the Nationals mull Cade Cavalli’s path for the 2022 season, the electric right-hander is giving the team an impressive Spring Training résumé to consider.

“He fit right in,” manager Dave Martinez said.

Cavalli -- ranked as the Nats’ No. 1 prospect and MLB’s No. 39 overall prospect by MLB Pipeline -- faced a Cardinals lineup heavy with Major League hitters in his first spring start Friday at Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium. He tossed 55 pitches (33 strikes) across three-plus innings, allowing five hits, three runs and zero walks while fanning three in Washington's 5-4 loss. The hard-throwing 23-year-old averaged 97.4 mph with his fastball and maxed out at 98.5 mph.

“I was very excited,” Cavalli said. “I feel like I belong there and facing those kind of hitters. I think I showed today that I can go compete with anyone. I trust my stuff. I feel great physically, that’s the main thing. I feel great mentally, and I’m really excited for this season.”

Cavalli made his spring debut Sunday when he struck out six batters in the final three innings against the Astros. Friday’s lineup had a different look, though, as his opponents included six-time All-Stars Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt. It was a new level of competition for Cavalli, who reached Triple-A Rochester last year in his first pro season.

“It’s cool, I grew up watching those guys,” Cavalli said. “But at the same time, I’m going to be honest, I looked at them and I was like, 'I’m getting you out right here. I’m here to dominate you.' And that’s my mindset up there. We’re competing, and I want to win that.”

Cavalli retired Dylan Carlson, Goldschmidt and Tyler O’Neill in a 1-2-3 inning to open the game. But he ran into a jam in the second when he allowed a double to Arenado, a single to Corey Dickerson, an RBI single to Paul DeJong and a two-run double to Harrison Bader. Unfazed by the 3-0 deficit, Cavalli buckled down to pick off Bader at second and force Andrew Knizner and Nolan Gorman to ground out. Cavalli retired the side in the third, and he exited in the fourth after allowing the inning’s leadoff hitter, Arenado, to single into left field.

“He had a good rhythm going, and there were a few pitches there for a while [in the second inning] where I thought, 'Oh boy, his rhythm’s starting to get a little quicker, he stopped breathing a little bit,'” said Martinez. “Then, all of a sudden, it looked like he caught himself and he just went [exhales], and then it was, 'Bam, bam, bam.' I thought, 'OK, awesome, that’s good.'”

Cavalli took a simple approach to working through the high-leverage situation: “The beautiful part about this game is, it’s the same dimensions no matter who you’re facing.”

Now the Nationals will have to decide who Cavalli will face at the start of the season. The team has emphasized it is not looking to rush him to the Majors for the sake of filling a roster spot, especially when he only has 123 1/3 innings under his belt in one year of professional experience. But the pitcher who led the Minor Leagues in strikeouts (175) last season has gotten “way better, way better,” according to Martinez, and the Nats’ starting rotation is short-handed due to the injuries of Stephen Strasburg and Joe Ross. Washington will continue to evaluate Cavalli in camp, where he is scheduled to make another start in five days.

Whether it is Opening Day or later in the season, Cavalli is targeting his big league debut in 2022.

“A hundred percent,” he said. “That’s my dream. I’ve worked my butt off to get to this point and I’ve still got a lot to learn. But I feel like I can go compete at that level right now and I’m still learning, which is very exciting.”

The Nationals’ rotation will take shape over the next 10 days. Whether or not that includes Cavalli remains to be seen, but his “I belong here” attitude is one that resonates with Martinez for whenever he does get the call.

“I love it, I really do,” Martinez said. “You’ve got to want it. The objective for those guys is to come up and get to the big leagues, right? You’ve got to believe that you belong here, and he does believe that.”