When it comes to the Nationals' farm system, there are the Big Three, and there is everyone else.
Cade Cavalli, Jackson Rutledge and Cole Henry not only sit on the top of MLB Pipeline's Washington prospect ranking. They all fit a similar profile -- right-handers standing at 6-foot-4 or above who were picked in early rounds of the 2019 and 2020 Drafts. Oh, they also throw hard and feature the requisite secondary stuff to become Major League starters some day. Now, all three are getting in work at the Nats' alternate training site in Fredericksburg, Va., getting in the pitching experience necessary ahead of what would be each hurler's first taste of a full Minor League season.
It's a different tactic than other farm systems might take with arms highly unlikely to open the season at Triple-A. While the lack of a Minor League campaign in 2020 necessitated top prospects working out at alternate training sites last summer, the return of Minor League Spring Training camps in the last few weeks have offered new outlets for young players to get going against more experience-appropriate competition. But after Cavalli, Rutledge and Henry each saw time in Major League camp as non-roster invites in February and March, the Nats wanted to keep their momentum going with an older group in Fredericksburg, where Washington Minor Leaguers face Orioles farmhands twice a week.
"It's exciting every time these guys are able to get on the field and compete against another club," said Nationals assistant general manager Mark Scialabba. "Right now, every rep counts. Even these inner squads are great experience for them. They really need to need to face outside competition. You can get work in some game atmospheres [at Minor League camp] and definitely work on individual pitch characteristics or delivery or even just tempo. But when it comes down to facing other teams and the intensity level that brings, that experience is hard to replicate."
All three hurlers are built up to three innings per outing as of this weekend, Scialabba said, and are aiming to be ready for five-inning starts come the start of the Minor League season on May 4. In that process, all three have looked as expected. Cavalli -- the only current Top 100 prospect in the group -- features two plus pitches in his fastball and curve and also receives above-average grades on his slider and changeup. A 2019 first-rounder, Rutledge might be the hardest thrower of the group with a mid-90s fastball that touches higher and mixes in a plus slider and average curve and change. Henry -- last year's second-round pick out of LSU -- sits around 94 with the heater and can flash above-average with his own curveball and changeup.
Interestingly, it's a possibility that all three could feature in the same Minor League rotation out of the gate, perhaps at High-A Wilmington or Double-A Harrisburg. Cavalli and Rutledge are both 22, and Henry will turn the same age in July. Rutledge was drafted one year earlier but came from a junior college background, meaning he would have been in the same Draft class as the other two had he not transferred from Arkansas after his freshman year. Nothing is set in stone at this juncture, Scialabba cautioned.
"There's a certain probability to that but it's something that we continue to discuss and want to make sure they're in the best place for their individual development," he said. "I think age comes into play, but it's really more about where they are from an experience standpoint, maturity, strike quality and ability to handle adversity. So all those factors will come into play."
Of course, their 2021 opening assignments are only the starting line. If they have hopes of being the next version of Scherzer-Strasburg-Corbin in the nation's capital, all three need to refine their game against more advanced bats in Fredericksburg first.
"It's a great experience for them," Scialabba said of seeing Cavalli, Rutledge and Henry at the alt site. "Then they know what they have to do. Look, they need to get experience. It's not gonna just happen overnight."
No. 15 Nationals prospect Israel Pineda was already Rule 5-eligible last fall at 20 years old but went unprotected and unpicked because he was still much too raw of a catcher, having never played above Low-A. Washington invited him to Major League camp this spring, and Pineda made a solid impression in short playing time, going 3-for-5 with a homer and one single that was measured at 107.3 mph off the bat.
That production hasn't much stopped as Pineda hangs back at Minor League camp in West Palm Beach. The right-handed slugger added another blast in an intrasquad matchup that the Nationals say went out with a 114 mph exit velocity and traveled 465 feet. (Kyle Schwarber's 463-foot homer Friday is the longest of the season for a Nats Major Leaguer so far.) That's a promising development for a batter whose Minor League career high for dingers is only seven.
"He has power potential," Scialabba said. "We're starting to see the ability to hit the ball the other way. More consistently, he is staying through the hitting zone very well on his swings."
The difference maker for Pineda will remain on the defensive side. The Venezuela native spent much of 2020 at the alternate site and instructs working with both older pitchers and fellow backstops, and the confidence picked up from that work is starting to pay dividends this spring ahead of his age-21 season.
"He brings a lot of energy, which is good," Scialabba said. "He's thinking about what the pitchers' strengths are, understanding their abilities, understanding sequencing, how to set up hitters, read swings. Game-calling skills are obviously very important, but he's learning that right now. I think he's understanding his role as someone that can become a leader on the field."
Alternate training site update
Cavalli, Rutledge and Henry aren't the only pitchers worth monitoring in Fredericksburg. No. 8 prospect Tim Cate missed Grapefruit League time earlier in the spring with arm soreness but is throwing normally at the alternate site. The 23-year-old southpaw is sitting 91-92 in outings since leaving West Palm Beach, showing off his typical plus curveball and continuing to develop a changeup that could keep him a starting role, despite his undersized frame at just 6-foot.
Scialabba also highlighted the progress of No. 11 prospect Drew Mendoza. The 2019 third-rounder brings above-average power from the left side and plenty of patience to the table, having hit 16 homers and walked 70 times in his final spring at Florida State, but Washington wanted him to get more aggressive to make the most of that pop. The early returns are promising.
"He's just really taken to his approach, shortened up his swing, gotten into his legs more and he's able to leverage the baseball to all fields," said the Nats exec. "He has a very advanced feel for the strike zone, understands the zone and has discipline to stay off pitches outside. He's really learning how to leverage his swing more and shorten up so he's attacking the pitches he can handle."
Prospect we'll be talking about in 2022
The breakout of Jeremy De La Rosa likely would have come in a normal 2020 Minor League season.
The left-handed outfielder was pushed to the Gulf Coast League one year after signing out of the Dominican Republic, and the Nats saw enough from him in that stateside look to continue an aggressive path. The coronavirus pandemic had other plans. Washington still used De La Rosa at its alternate training site in Fredericksburg in what would have been his age-18 season and were happy with the way his above-average power played against the tougher competition. De La Rosa's arrival in camp in West Palm Beach has been delayed due to COVID-19 protocols, but the Nats were pleased with how that strength was continuing to play in offseason workouts in his home country.
"He looked great in the Dominican," Scialabba said. "Our coaches down there were raving about him being as strong as he's ever been. ... Really, he's in a very good place, physically. His swing continues to evolve. He's showing the ability to hit the ball hard to all fields with with power, and it's continuing to emerge. We love the makeup, love the upside."
Now 19, De La Rosa is likely to break with a full-season club for the first time, and if he can hit 20 homers in 2021, he will be an even bigger name on the prospect landscape heading into next year.
In the Dominican
The Nats opened up operations on their camp in the Dominican Republic earlier in March with the primary objective of getting international players prepared for Minor League camp in the States. Those preparations were put on pause for Semana Santa (or Holy Week) prior to Easter but have begun again in earnest in the past week. The new priority will be on beginning the club's Dominican Summer League program, taking recent signings from the last two international signing windows and preparing them for looks in the low-level complex circuit.
Among those working out in said program: No. 7 prospect Armando Cruz. The 17-year-old signed for $3.9 million in January, tying the club record for highest bonus given to an international player. He is considered to be a plus fielder already at shortstop and backs that up with above-average speed. The biggest priority will be developing his bat from the right side and getting it to a place where he can be more than an all-glove infielder.
"We're excited where is, and we're excited to have him," Scialabba said.