His upcoming status is just one of Washington’s rotation questions. Also on the list is whether Erick Fedde’s return — tentatively slated for Tuesday night in Seattle — could squeeze a current starter to the minors or a different role. Add to that the possibility that Cade Cavalli’s next start could be with the big league club (41-81).
Multiple people in the organization believe it’s a realistic and logical possibility. If Cavalli were promoted to debut against the Cincinnati Reds at home on Friday, he would have two extra days in addition to the typical rest between starts.
“I’ve been keeping an eye on him,” Martinez said after Cavalli struck out eight in five innings of work in Worcester, Mass. on Saturday, a start that lasted 109 pitches. “He’s had some consistency as of late, which is kind of nice. And his stuff is actually really playing well, but we got to get that pitch count down. He’s got to be more efficient.”
Cavalli, 24 and one of the club’s top prospects, struck out six in the first two innings for the Class AAA Rochester Red Wings on Saturday. He also struck out 11 in his previous outing, all part of a dominant stretch that began in early July. Twice this season, Washington has sat him for two weeks in hopes of having him pitching through September again. Whether that’s in D.C. or Rochester, though, is a big call for General Manager Mike Rizzo.
Unlike Gray, Cavalli’s 97 innings leaves him 26⅓ below his 2021 total. On Saturday, he needed 109 pitches to record 15 outs, only amplifying concerns about his command. Cavalli’s four-seam fastball sat in the high-90s at the beginning of his outing. His secondary pitches include a curve, slider and a developing change-up, with many in the organization believing the change-up could dictate how his eventual transition goes.
To retire left-handed hitters in the majors, righties typically use a cutter that darts inside or a change-up that fades to the outer half. This summer, Rafael Chaves, the Red Wings’ pitching coach, has helped Cavalli fine-tune the latter.
If that happens to be this week, the Nationals have options. They are off Monday and Thursday, allowing them to reset their rotation for the stretch run. Gray is a moving target because of his looming innings limit, which could open a spot. Otherwise, Martinez has expressed at least light interest in using a six-man rotation to ease the burden on Gray and the rest of the staff, a strategy that would be easier once rosters expand to 28 players Sept. 1.
I feel good. I feel like I’m bouncing back from every outing pretty well and taking the ball every fifth day, whenever Davey wants me to,” Gray said Saturday night. “I feel prepared, I feel energized with every outing. I don’t feel like the length of the season is getting to me and I’m excited to finish this thing out as strong as I can.”
Cavalli aside, Gray, Fedde, Patrick Corbin, Paolo Espino, Aníbal Sánchez and Cory Abbott are in the rotation mix. Abbott is the leading candidate to be swapped out once Fedde returns. MacKenzie Gore, acquired from the Padres in the Juan Soto/Josh Bell trade, is slowly making his way back from elbow inflammation. A dream scenario for the Nationals is for both Cavalli and Gore to join the club in September, offering glimpses of a future with them headlining a staff alongside Gray.
Through May, Gore had a 1.71 ERA in the first eight starts of his career. Given a similar chance to test himself at the highest level, Cavalli would gain feedback to take into the offseason. And another relevant factor is that, at this point of the calendar, there is no way for Cavalli to burn his rookie status before next year.
To do so, he would have to pitch 50 major league innings this season or log 45 days of service with Washington. But with neither mark reachable, Cavalli would be eligible for rookie of the year in 2023. If he won the award, the Nationals would receive a compensatory draft pick. If he finished in the top three, there could be benefits for the club in the international market.
These bonuses, designed to incentivize teams to promote their top young players, are part of the new collective bargaining agreement and only apply for those listed as a top 100 prospect by two of ESPN, Baseball America or MLB Pipeline. Cavalli checks all of those boxes and should be moving forward. Sounds like something a rebuilding club might be interested in.
How did the Nationals fall behind? Soto — remember him? — crushed a go-ahead solo homer to straightaway center off reliever Steve Cishek in the seventh. Before the matchup, Martinez had the chance to keep in lefty Jake McGee, who replaced Gray and worked a one-two-three sixth on 11 pitches. But since McGee had already warmed up extensively before replacing Gray, Martinez turned to the right-handed Cishek and the choice backfired. Cishek fell behind 2-0 and threw a down-the-chute sinker to one of the best hitters on the planet. High-leverage relievers Kyle Finnegan and Carl Edwards Jr. were not available because they had pitched in the previous two contests.
Soto’s on-base-plus slugging percentage against lefties heading into the game: .965.
“We had to get McGee out [because] he got up twice,” Martinez explained. “Josiah got behind a lot of hitters, pitch count was way up, so we had to get [McGee] up twice just in case he got in trouble.”
How did Gray’s outing shake out? Despite bad command from the start, Gray managed to gut out five innings with only one run on his line. That came courtesy of Bell, who was Gray’s second-to-last batter and rocked a solo homer to right-center. Bell had been 0-for-20 against the Nationals since they traded him Aug. 2. Earlier in the night, Gray walked the bases loaded in the first and stranded them, then stranded them again in the third, then left two more on in the fourth.
Gray ultimately walked five and threw 102 pitches (55 strikes). The Nationals’ only run was on Lane Thomas’s solo homer off Joe Musgrove in the second. They put two on against Luis Garcia in the ninth but couldn’t knot the score. For the final outs, runners froze on a soft liner from Maikel Franco and Thomas was caught in a rundown between second and third for a double play. Franco pinch-hit because Luke Voit (back spasms) was not available; Yadiel Hernandez went to the injured list with a left calf strain Saturday afternoon; and outfielder Josh Palacios, his replacement, had not arrived yet when the defeat ended. That thinned Martinez’s bench to two players and limited his late-game decision-making.
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