Nationals president of baseball operations Mike Rizzo announced today in a press release that right-hander Cade Cavalli has a grade 3 UCL sprain and will require Tommy John surgery, meaning Cavalli will miss the entire 2023 season.
Cavalli, 24, figured to be a member of the Nationals starting rotation this year after making his big league debut in a single start last August before being sidelined with shoulder inflammation. While he struggled mightily in that start (seven earned runs in just 4 1/3 innings), Cavalli was among not only Washington’s top prospects, but among the best prospects in the game, with most services considering him a top 60 prospect in the sport. Instead of joining fellow youngsters Josiah Gray and MacKenzie Gore as they make their cases as rotation arms of the future for the rebuilding Nationals, Cavalli will spend the entire 2023 season rehabbing and likely not return to the mound until sometime during the 2024 season.
Cavalli rocketed through the minor leagues in his first professional season in 2021, dominating in High-A to the tune of a 1.77 ERA for 40 2/3 innings before moving up to Double-A, where he continued to excel with a 2.79 ERA in 58 innings before hitting a wall following a promotion to Triple-A. At the Triple-A level in 2022, Cavalli was torched to the tune of a 7.30 ERA in 24 2/3 innings. Though a .397 BABIP indicated some bad luck, his 4.54 FIP still indicating pronounced struggles relative to his dominance of lower levels of the minors.
In 2022, Cavalli returned to Triple-A and looked more like himself, hurling 97 innings with a 3.71 ERA and 3.25 FIP. Those numbers came with a 25.9% strikeout rate, 9.7% walk rate, and just three home runs allowed. Cavalli grew more impressive as the season wore on, with a sterling 1.47 ERA across seven minor league starts in July and August ahead of his big league call-up at the end of the month.
With Cavalli shelved for 2023, the Nationals seem likely to rely on either non-roster invitee Chad Kuhl to round out their Opening Day rotation. Kuhl, 30, has been a below average starter for his career, posting a 4.74 ERA (91 ERA+) in 576 2/3 innings of work with the Pirates and Rockies. That being said, he provides a steady veteran presence at the back of a rotation that’s rather young outside of Patrick Corbin. If the Nationals wish to have other arms still in camp compete with Kuhl for the fifth rotation spot, there are a couple of options remaining. Wily Peralta could be stretched out in the final weeks of Spring Training, as he has ample starting experience despite being used in short relief this spring, and Paolo Espino made 19 starts for the Nationals last year, pitching to a 4.84 ERA in 113 1/3 innings.
Should Kuhl begin the year in the rotation, that leaves youngster Joan Adon, who was recently cut from big league camp by the Nationals, as the likely top depth option. Adon made 14 starts for the Nationals last year, though he pitched to a disastrous 7.10 ERA (55 ERA+) in his 64 2/3 innings of work. Another option would be right-hander Cory Abbott, who was cut along with Adon but pitched 48 innings for the Nationals last year in a swing role that saw him start nine games.
Manager Davey Martinez has indicated he’s comfortable with the club’s existing rotation depth, even without Cavalli. That said, in the event the Nationals wish to look for additional rotation depth following Cavalli’s injury, the pickings are fairly slim on the free agent market at this point, with the likes of Chris Archer, Michael Pineda, and former National Anibal Sanchez among the remaining options.