Cavalli delivers electrifying display of potential

Nationals' No. 4 prospect carries advice to pound zone into solid 2-inning outing

March 4th, 2023

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- With a plethora of young arms to stretch out this spring, the Nationals have been opting for to come out of the bullpen, at least until they’re ready for the 24-year-old prospect to start and go some distance.

Taking the mound behind starter in Saturday’s 9-6 loss to the Cardinals at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, Cavalli showed why he’s ranked as the Nationals’ No. 4 prospect per MLB Pipeline. Gray came out the same -- though improved -- starter that Washington tabbed as its No. 2 arm last year, allowing two hits over two innings after using just three pitches to strike out the first batter he faced.

Cavalli also struck out the first batter he faced on three pitches, then allowed a mammoth homer to the Cardinals’ No. 1 prospect, Jordan Walker. Then, another strikeout.

“I was trying to go up and in, just make him feel a little bit uncomfortable, and I missed,” Cavalli said, “practically middle-middle. So it was a bad mistake, and bad things happen when that occurs.”

The Nationals have been pushing their starters -- and all their pitchers, really -- to focus on pounding the strike zone and getting ahead in counts. Cavalli did just that. After allowing a leadoff walk in the fourth, his second inning on the mound, Cavalli set down the side on three called strikeouts. In total, Cavalli threw 37 pitches in his two-inning, five-strikeout performance.

“I actually thought everything was working really well,” Cavalli said. “The movement on [my secondary stuff] was great. I felt very comfortable with all the pitches in the ‘pen, and that carried out into the game. The slider, the changeup and I think the curveball I threw mostly, and I was able to land that early and get them off the fastball a little bit.”

That’s how Cavalli’s arsenal works -- go to the strike zone with his four-seamer, then back batters off with his breaking balls. In his one Major League start last year, Cavalli utilized his curveball the most, second only to his four-seamer. He also has a solid changeup and slider when he’s executing. It’s that changeup that manager Dave Martinez is looking forward to seeing in game action.

“He's got a really good one,” Martinez said of Cavalli’s changeup. “I think today was his day, he wanted to just land his curveball, and he did -- with two strikes he was trying to bury it over the plate. I know he wants to work on that. … But his changeup, it's a really good pitch also. So [pitching coach Jim Hickey] is going to talk to him a little bit about making sure he mixes that in as well.”

Though Cavalli has turned into a strikeout pitcher as he has developed, that’s not intentional. He has taken Martinez and the coaching staff’s advice to trust his defense to heart. That’s why he feels more comfortable attacking the zone and keeping his stuff over the plate -- even if that means occasionally allowing homers like that one to Walker.

“I just keep applying pressure to hitters and working over the plate, consistently in the zone,” Cavalli said. “I trust myself and I trust that, whenever I'm in the zone, good things are going to happen. So that's an improvement I've been trying to make mostly.”

The Nationals’ first-round pick in the 2020 Draft, Cavalli was sidelined with right shoulder inflammation after making his debut last year. Now in his second big league camp, Cavalli is able to learn from and grow with the Nats’ other young starters, including Gray.

Gray, whom the Nationals acquired from the Dodgers as part of the Max Scherzer and Trea Turner Trade Deadline deal two years ago, boasts an arsenal similar to Cavalli’s. This offseason, Gray worked to develop his changeup more. He didn’t throw that pitch on Saturday, but he’s looking forward to using it in game action. 

“I wanted to mix in some changeups but didn't get there,” Gray said. “I think it’s going to be a really effective pitch the more I continue to throw it in bullpens. It’s just a matter of taking it from bullpens … to games.”

The big takeaway from Saturday’s matchup: The Nationals have two young starting pitchers who, as they continue to develop, can do some serious damage. They just have to keep attacking.

“They're actually learning,” Martinez said. “They're understanding how the strike one, the 1-1 counts -- when you when those counts, you’ve got a really good chance of getting hitters out consistently. And that’s something that they’re working on.”