Cavalli, 21, was a two-way player in his first two seasons with the Sooners. He was drafted in the 29th round straight out of high school in 2017 by the Atlanta Braves but opted to attend college. As a junior this spring, in a season shortened because of the novel coronavirus, he struck out 37 batters in 23⅔ innings over four starts. He did not have any at-bats but flashed his athleticism by hitting .319 with four homers, five doubles and two triples in 2019.
He stopped playing first base this year to focus on developing as a pitcher, a spot he’s still learning. He had thrown just 100 ⅓ career innings before the rest of the college season was canceled in March. The Nationals had eight in-person scouting reports on Cavalli, according to General Manager Mike Rizzo, and were drawn to his consistent velocity, smooth delivery and overall build.
“I just put all my eggs in one basket because I was a little new to pitching,” Cavalli said Wednesday night on a call with reporters. “This is really my second year of just fully focusing on pitching. I just wanted to get the hitting out of the way.”
Washington has now used its last first-round picks on a pitcher. The list includes Jackson Rutledge, selected in the first round of 2019, Mason Denaburg (2018), Seth Romero (2017) and Dane Dunning (2016). The coronavirus shortened the 2020 draft to five rounds, a shell of the usual 40, and Washington has six total picks. Clubs will be permitted to sign undrafted players to a maximum $20,000 bonus.
Each team is allotted a bonus pool with which to sign players, and each draft slot was assigned a value by MLB. The slot value of the 22nd pick is $3,027,000. If the Nationals sign Cavalli to a bonus that exceeds that value, they would have less money to spend on their other picks. If they agree to a bonus that is below the slot value, they would have more money for the remaining selections. Based on rules adjusted because of the pandemic, each player will receive $100,000 of their signing bonus now, with the rest spread across the next two years.
“He’s got a great pitcher’s frame,” Kris Kline, the Nationals’ assistant general manager overseeing amateur scouting, said of Cavalli on Wednesday. “It’s a strong, defined, durable look. It’s a very nice delivery, it’s a clean arm action. It’s fast, it’s loose. It’s a big fastball.”
Cavalli is 6-foot-4 and 220-pounds, a size similar to some of the Nationals’ recent selections. Rutledge is 6-8. Denaburg is 6-4. Dunning, now with the White Sox, is 6-4, and Erick Fedde, drafted by Washington in the 2014 first round, is, too. Lucas Giolito, whom the Nationals picked in the 2012 first round, stands at 6-6.
The Nationals favor height. They also like height paired with velocity, and while Cavalli battled fastball command issues throughout college, scouting reports say his heat runs from the mid- to high-90s. He described a five-pitch mix: a four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball, change-up, spike curveball and a slider. The first-round selection indicates the Nationals project him as a starter, so a minimum of three refined pitches will be critical to future success.
Kline noted that Cavalli’s slider is already “above average” for a major leaguer. Kline sees the curveball as Cavalli’s weakest pitch, but feels it could develop into a weapon Cavalli uses to get ahead in counts. When Kline saw Cavalli at Minute Maid Park in February, Cavalli’s fastball held at 96 MPH for five innings. Kline called the performance “absolutely electric.”
“I’ve been a hitter, and I know it’s very uncomfortable when a guy’s bringing some heat and he’s also got three or four other pitches he can go land,” said Cavalli, who dealt with a lower-back injury and a stress reaction in his throwing arm while at Oklahoma. “It’s an uncomfortable AB, and that’s what I try to deliver to the batters.”
Rizzo has never been shy about his chief philosophy: winning starts on the mound. That’s why the Nationals invested close to $96 million on their rotation last season, which ended with a World Series title. And it’s why they have used the draft to build an army of young arms, who have been employed in a number of ways.
Rutledge, 21, is already one of the organization’s prized prospects. Denaburg has been slowed by injuries, while Romero underwent Tommy John surgery in 2018 following a string of disciplinary issues. Fedde has been a depth starter for three years, bouncing between the majors and minors. Giolito and Dunning were traded to the White Sox for Adam Eaton. Alex Meyer, a right-handed pitcher picked by the Nationals in the 2011 first round, was dealt to the Minnesota Twins for Denard Span.
For a decade, the Nationals have balanced a win-now approach with a longer view. That has made it hard to maintain a strong system because prospects are often expendable. Cavalli could fit a variety of plans. But first he will wait while MLB, paused for the pandemic, figures out how to restart.
There almost certainly will be no minor league season this summer. How that affects player development and the overall viability of the minor leagues will be discussed for years to come. That’s the baseball world that Cavalli and those picked Wednesday are entering. It’s a complicated time to reach a dream.
“The emotions were unreal,” Cavalli said of the moment he was drafted. “I just burst into tears. I really didn’t think I was going to cry.”