Cavalli even-keeled ahead of Tommy John surgery

Pitching prospect will miss 2023 season, but is prepared to work his way back

March 16th, 2023

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- still has plenty of questions after learning that he needs reconstructive elbow surgery, and not a lot of answers. But as he prepares to embark on the toughest challenge of his still young life as a pitcher, he has one thing: a strategy.

“It’s adversity,” said Cavalli, “and you’ve just got to love on the adversity.”

The 24-year-old right-hander, ranked as the Nationals’ No. 4 prospect and No. 58 in all of baseball, was well on the way to making his first Opening Day roster when he felt something catch in his pitching elbow on Tuesday. The diagnosis was swift and clear: a grade three sprain of his ulnar collateral ligament, requiring Tommy John surgery that will knock him out at least through the 2023 season.

It’s a blow for a young Nationals club, but especially for Cavalli himself. A fast riser after being drafted in the first round out of the University of Oklahoma in 2020, Cavalli made his big league debut last fall. In his first start of the spring, he was throwing just about as well as anyone had ever seen him, and he likely would have cracked the season-opening rotation.

“He was going to be that fifth starter,” said manager Dave Martinez.

But the same drive and positivity that helped put Cavalli in that position will also propel him through the long days and grueling workouts of the next 12 months. Make no mistake -- it’s going to be difficult. But while Cavalli grants that the challenge is immense, he also sees opportunity.

“I think that’s the only way you can [view it],” he said. “The way I live my life is, I try to manage everything with a neutral mindset and I want to try to make the next best choice ahead. I think that the next best choice ahead for me is get that surgery and do whatever it takes, and do whatever the doctor and our staff tell me. Whatever that plan is, I’m going to go execute it.”

It’s telling that once it was clear that surgery was the only option, Cavalli wanted to proceed immediately. He met with Martinez and president of baseball operations Mike Rizzo on Wednesday, and they explained the situation to him. Despite the disappointment, Cavalli insisted that they get on with the next phase as soon as possible.

He will undergo the operation on March 22 with Dr. Keith Meister in Texas before doing most of his rehab at the complex in West Palm Beach.

“I do know one thing,” Rizzo said. “He's going to rehab with the same ferocity and attitude that he pitches with. Although he was a little emotional at the beginning, and that’s normal, I think it’s safe to say this guy is going to be a rehab machine and really get after it, and really make himself better when he comes back.”

Cavalli explained that he took some time to grieve a very real loss. But not much time, because after that he knew it was time to get to work.

“I gave myself a little bit of time to cry and to hurt,” he said, “but during that meeting with them, it was just kind of like, it is what it is, and it’s time. It was just, a little flip the switch and I’m ready. I am. I’m ready to rock. I’m going to be back, and I’m going to be better. I promise. I’m very excited about this.”

And he won’t be alone. Cavalli ticked off a long list of people he knows will have his back, from his fiancée Maddie Bittle, to his parents and family, to his agent and friends back home. And then there are his teammates, who are already looking out for him.

As Cavalli spoke with reporters on Thursday afternoon, he held a T-shirt that Martinez had presented to him. The front of the shirt read “ALWAYS,” and it had handwritten messages from other Nats pitchers on it. “Be persistent,” read one, along with “stay positive,” “grow” and “keep working.” There’s no doubt in Cavalli’s mind that he has plenty of people in his corner.

“This is something that I’m going to take through with me during this process and it’s just a reminder that I’m not doing this for myself,” he said. “I’m doing this for the team. I want to put myself in the best possible situation whenever I get back to help the ballclub win.”