Pros and cons of Nats adding Cavalli to Opening Day roster

Cade Cavalli

Cade Cavalli has been among the most impressive pitchers in camp for the Nationals this spring. He’s made two appearances and allowed three runs in six innings, striking out nine and walking none. All three of those runs came in Friday’s start against the St. Louis Cardinals, who trotted out a lineup full of regulars including Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado.

The Nationals’ consensus top prospect earned his second-straight non-roster invitation to spring training this year after leading the minor leagues with 175 strikeouts between High-A and Triple-A. He’s a candidate to make the club’s Opening Day roster, especially with Stephen Strasburg and Joe Ross both expected to start the year on the injured list.

However, the decision to break camp with Cavalli isn’t a simple one. While he finished last year — his first full season in the professional ranks — in Triple-A, his numbers at Rochester were uninspiring: 7.30 ERA, 1.865 WHIP and 8.8 K/9 in six starts. After dominating High-A and Double-A, Cavalli ran into a wall for the first time as the experienced bats in Triple-A hit him around a bit.

Cavalli’s control has been a point of emphasis for the Nationals, who drafted him in the first round out of Oklahoma in 2020 knowing he was still a raw product. The stuff is certainly there, but Washington may want to see him harness his pitches in Triple-A before calling him up.


“He understands what he needs to do,” manager Davey Martinez said in a press conference March 18. “The good thing is that he got [123 1/3] innings last year, and he learned a lot, and he knows that he’s going to throw strikes. The biggest thing for him as we tell all of our young guys and even our veteran guys: If you can’t throw the ball consistently over the plate, the struggles are going to be big for you. Especially when you get up here and the hitters are so much better because they got a good eye.”

If the Nationals do decide Cavalli is ready, they would have to clear a spot on the 40-man roster. Both Ross and third baseman Carter Kieboom are already on the 60-Day IL, so there aren’t any injured players they could move to make room. Washington already designated reliever Jhon Romero for assignment this spring to open a slot for Nelson Cruz and he was claimed off waivers by the Minnesota Twins.

Then there’s the service-time element. By keeping Cavalli in the minors for at least the first two weeks of the season, the Nationals would gain an extra year of team control. However, MLB and the players union instituted a new rule in the Collective Bargaining Agreement this offseason that rewards teams with a draft pick if a top prospect earns a full year of service time and either wins Rookie of the Year or finishes among the top three in MVP/Cy Young award voting.

All that being said, both Martinez and GM Mike Rizzo have said this spring that the Nationals return to D.C. with the 28 best players they have available to them. With only Josiah Gray and Patrick Corbin certain to crack the rotation, Cavalli will have to beat out the likes of Erick Fedde, Paolo Espino, Josh Rogers, Aníbal Sánchez, Aaron Sanchez, Joan Adon and Gerardo Carrillo for one of the spots.

Cavalli may have the highest upside of any of them, but it will come down to whether he’s ready to be a starter who can make it deep into starts every five days at the big-league level.

“Cade is going to tell us when he’s ready to pitch in the big leagues,” Rizzo said at the start of spring. “He’s got electric stuff, he’s got an elite package, we know that. He just needs to refine it a little bit. And the pace of that is up to him. He’s an extremely hard worker, and he’s got to take it at his pace, but he’s going to let us know by his performance when he’s ready, and as always, what we’ve done here with myself as the GM, when he’s ready he’s going to be here.”