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The Time is Now for Cade Cavalli, Nationals

There might not be a hotter prospect in professional baseball right now than right-handed pitcher Cade Cavalli, and it comes at a very opportune moment for himself and the Washington Nationals.

As everyone knows by now, the 22-year-old righty was Washington’s first round selection in the 2020 MLB Draft, and through seven starts in High-A Wilmington this year, he’s been nothing short of filthy.

Saturday, his dominance was on full display, as he tossed seven no-hit innings and struck out a whopping 15 batters. That outing dropped his ERA to 1.77 and his hits allowed per nine innings to just over five, while his strikeouts per nine innings rose to just below 16. For context, the highest season-season rate of Max Scherzer’s big league career is only 12.7.

Just over a week ago, in their most recent round of updates, Cavalli was upgraded to Baseball America’s No. 33 overall prospect – a leap of 49 spots since their preseason rankings. Following his most masterful performance yet on Saturday, he was named to MLB Pipeline’s Prospect Team of the Week and – more importantly – was promoted to Double-A Harrisburg.

While his promotion was certainly deserved based on his performance, it was also necessary for the immediate well being of the Nationals.

As it stands, Stephen Strasburg is on the IL and Max Scherzer’s health is, at best, in limbo – he’s already scheduled to miss his next start, and his injuries have tended to be recurring in recent years. That leaves Patrick Corbin, Jon Lester, Joe Ross and Erick Fedde as the set-in-stone members of the current starting rotation, with a void in the No. 5 spot. That opening was filled by right-hander Jefry Rodriguez in Game 2 of Saturday’s doubleheader, and although he pitched admirably well, he likely isn’t the long-term answer – if one is in fact needed.

Equally troublesome, the top four arms come with their share of question marks. Corbin enters his Tuesday start with a 6.21 ERA this season, Lester is 37 years old and hasn’t gone deeper than six innings yet this season, and Ross and Fedde are both unreliable physically and game-to-game. As stated previously, their innings might be capped near 150 this year.

Frankly, the Nationals would prefer to have a better option to round out the rotation right now. Instead, they’ll have to settle for later this season, or perhaps not until next year. However, by promoting Cavalli, their best bet at a starter who can stick around is one step closer to the big leagues.

Most scouts and player development personnel will tell you that the jump from High-A to Double-A is the toughest and most important stage of a prospect’s development. Aside from the big league experience some Triple-A players have, there isn’t as overwhelming of a difference in talent level between Double-A and Triple-A as there is compared to lower levels.

With that stated, Cavalli’s rise to the big leagues could be quick now. Joe Ross earned his first call-up after 13 appearances in Double-A (four which came as a member of the Padres organization) and none in Triple-A, and Juan Soto played 23 games combined between High-A and Double-A prior to his Major League debut. It’s not the path Washington has always taken with top-flight prospects, but they haven’t been afraid to when circumstances have demanded it. Right now feels like it could be one of those times.

Normally, there wouldn’t be this much pressure on a player in his first year – and certainly not in his second month – of professional baseball. However, desperate times call for desperate measures, and there are much more rash decisions that could be made than fast-tracking someone as talented as Cavalli.

Honorable Mention: Relief pitcher Matt Cronin was also promoted from High-A to Double-A. Also among Washington’s higher-rated prospects, the left-handed closer has a sub-1.00 ERA through 27 career minor-league appearances, and his strikeout rates of 17.2 per nine innings and 5.6 per walk surrendered with Wilmington this season are sky-high. Don’t be surprised if he ascends as quickly, or quicker, than Cavalli. That’s the nature of being a dominant reliever in the minor leagues.

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