MiLB.com's Scouting Report series spotlights players who are just starting their professional careers, focusing on what the experts are projecting for these young phenoms. Here's a look at top-ranked Nationals prospect Cade Cavalli. For more player journeys on The Road to The Show, click here.
Less than two years removed from a World Series victory, the Nationals used this deadline to look to the future and signal the start of a rebuild in Washington.
Fortunately for Mike Rizzo’s club, third-ranked prospect Cade Cavalli seems to have caught on right away in the Nationals’ system.
Cavalli fell to the Nationals in last year’s Draft at No. 22 overall. The big-bodied, 6-foot-4, 230-pound right-hander, Cavalli didn’t post eye-popping numbers at the University of Oklahoma, compiling a 4.09 ERA with 114 strikeouts over 101 1/3 innings in just a little more than two seasons in the Big 12. But he displayed many of the qualities of a first-round talent and checked off some boxes for Rizzo in particular.
“We couldn’t have been happier to have gotten him at 22. We feel that he’s a good value there, and all the makeup work that we’ve done on him points to a guy that’s a high character guy with really good stuff,” Rizzo, the Nationals general manager, told MLB.com after selecting a college right-hander for the third consecutive draft. “We feel [he] is just on the cusp of really taking the next step and doing something big.”
Now the No. 74 overall prospect, Cavalli had been a two-way player as an amatuer and in his first two years of college. Although it wasn’t his singular focus, he was drafted as a pitcher out of Bixby High School in Oklahoma by the Braves as a safety net pick in the 29th round in 2017.
The Nationals had established a history with Cavalli going back to his prep school days. And even though he’d only made four starts for the Sooners in 2020, his performance against Arkansas in the Shriners Classic that February at Minute Maid Park jumped off the charts.
“He was absolutely electric,” Nationals assistant general manager and vice president of scouting operations Kris Kline said of Cavalli’s 11-strikeout performance. “He’s got a great pitcher’s frame -- [a] strong, defined, durable look. A very nice delivery. It’s a clean arm action. It’s fast. It’s loose. It’s a big fastball. On this particular day, he held 96 [mph] for five innings, touching 98, 99. I think he’ll settle in at 94, 95 every fifth day when a pro load hits him.”
Everything works off the fastball for Cavalli. And it’s evident that his heater caught the eye of the Nationals’ brass. But Cavalli feels that there’s more “pitch-ability” to his profile, and he certainly has a proper complement of weapons to avoid being one-dimensional.
“I have a five-pitch mix -- four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball, changeup, spike curveball and a slider, and I love to use all of them,” Cavalli said after the Draft. “I can use them pretty much in any count, and I have confidence with all of them. Also, I have the velocity of a power pitcher, and I just picture myself being a blend of those.”
Mark Scialabba, the Nationals assistant GM of player development offered a more in-depth assessment of Cavalli’s secondary pitches.
“He’s able to throw his slider as a chase pitch, with control and consistency that improved during camp,” Scialabba told MLB.com after the MLB Rookie Program in January. “His changeup might be his best pitch when he’s on -- he’s really learned to tunnel it well.”
After the lost season, the 23-year-old’s first professional experience came during one scoreless inning in Spring Training. Cavalli recorded a pair of strikeouts and a walk while appearing in the same game as second-ranked Nationals prospect Jackson Rutledge.
“He was very poised,” manager Dave Martinez told MiLB.com about Cavalli that day. “There was no panic. He did go to his secondary pitches, which is kind of nice to see. The good thing is that he had a veteran catcher in Yan [Gomes] that could help him out a little bit, and he looked really, really good.”
So far, Cavalli has exploded through the Minors with some of the best strikeout numbers in the game. Among Minor League pitchers with at least 60 innings this season, his 14.06 strikeouts per nine innings is second only to Orioles’ right hander and No. 16 overall prospect Grayson Rodriguez (14.38).
Cavalli stormed through the High-A East with a 1.77 ERA and 71 strikeouts over 40 2/3 innings in seven starts. He punched out no less than seven in each start and posted double-digit strikeout totals four times, including a personal-best 15 whiffs over seven no-hit innings in his swansong for Wilmington on June 12.
The Tulsa native was promoted to Double-A Harrisburg three days later. In nine starts with the Senators, he’s posted a 2.79 ERA with 48 strikeouts over 48 ⅓ innings. His control has gotten away from him a little bit at times, as he’s walked 27 at the level. But there have been some exciting developments in his fastball velocity.
Cavalli had been selected to participate in this year’s Futures Game at Coors Field, and showed some electrifying stuff in Colorado. He reached 100 mph on the radar gun while striking out a pair and issuing two walks in a scoreless inning.
Since then, Cavalli’s fastball has been able to hover around triple digits, and he’s continued to rack up big strikeout numbers for Harrisburg. Combine that heat with a quartet of other offerings, and it could make for a very dangerous presence on the mound should he figure it all out.
“My career, it’s pretty fresh on the pitching side, which excites me a ton, because it means I’ve got a lot to learn, a lot to develop,” Cavalli told MLB.com. “Where I’m at right now, I’m happy with it, but I’m not happy, if that makes sense. I’ve got a lot to go get better at. But also, I have a ton of confidence in my stuff and where I’m at right now. That’s what excites me, knowing that I can go get much better.”
Obviously there’s a long way to go for Cavalli, who only has 89 professional innings to his name. And the Nationals have just made the moves that should take them out of contention for the immediate future. But should that tide turn again, Cavalli should be a fixture in the Washington rotation.
Here's what the experts at MLB Pipeline have to say about Cavalli:
Scouting grades (20-80 scale)
“Cavalli was Oklahoma's top prep pitching prospect in 2017, but he turned down the Braves as a 29th-rounder to attend the University of Oklahoma. After spending the early part of his college career as a two-way player, he shifted his focus more to pitching as a sophomore and emerged as a likely first-rounder in ‘20 after his stuff had ticked up early in his junior year. Viewing Cavalli as someone who is only scraping his potential on the mound, the Nationals took the right-hander with the No. 22 overall pick and signed him for $3,027,000. The electric stuff Cavalli showed at Washington’s alternate training site and fall instructional camp left an indelible impression on club officials, and there even was some speculation that the hard-throwing righty might have finished the year in the Nationals’ big league bullpen had the team stayed in the playoff race.
Despite being relatively new to pitching, Cavalli already has shown that he can both throw strikes and miss bats with his entire four-pitch mix. Cavalli knows how to use his powerful 6-foot-4 frame and lightning-quick right arm to generate easy velocity. He sat comfortably in the mid-90s and topped out at 99 mph with his riding fastball in his first pro exposure. Cavalli can make hitters look bad with his 82-85 mph curveball, a plus pitch that he throws with power and depth, and he has developed an upper-80s slider/cutter that has similar out-pitch potential. An upper-80s changeup that Cavalli throws with conviction gives him yet another weapon, and some within the organization think it could become the right-hander’s best secondary offering.
Cavalli’s limited track record of staying healthy -- he was bothered by a back issue as a high school senior and also missed three weeks with a stress reaction in his right arm as an Oklahoma sophomore -- and overall inexperience on the mound give some evaluators pause in projecting him as a frontline starter. But the Nationals have done well developing big physical pitchers with good stuff in the past and believe Cavalli, whom the organization scouted extensively, has the physical tools, makeup and work ethic needed to reach his high ceiling.”
Gerard Gilberto is a reporter for MiLB.com.