The injury bug has already hit the Nationals hard this year and we haven't even gotten to opening day yet. The Nationals and GM Mike Rizzo announced that RHP Cade Cavalli will miss the entire 2023 season with a grade three sprain of the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) that will require Tommy John Surgery. A grade three sprain is a complete tear of the UCL, leaving no real options for alternative resolutions.
This goes without saying, but it is a massive loss for the Nationals this season as Cavalli was expected to earn a spot in the Nationals rotation. Expectations for the team are tempered, but the bright spot within the organization and for fans is the chances to see the young prospects and players make their impact on the franchise and establish themselves as pillars for the future. Cavalli unfortunately will have to wait to do so until 2024.
Cavalli's last Spring Training start was against the New York Mets and he was effective, as he went 2.2 IP, no hits, no runs, a walk and a strikeout on 43 pitches (31 strikes). It has his last pitch against Mets Centerfielder Brandon Nimmo that changed everything, a fastball that clocked in at an uncharacteristically low 87 MPH for Cavalli.
For long time Nationals fans, the injury was eerily similar to the one Stephen Strasburg suffered against Cleveland back in 2010. That injury also required Tommy John Surgery.
It has not been the start to Cavalli's career that many had hoped, as he made only one start for the Nationals in 2022 before being shut down the rest of the season with shoulder discomfort. He really just started throwing to hitters again in February with the start of Spring Training and was having a promising looking pre-season, including a 3 inning, one run, six strikeout performance against Team Israel as they prepared for the World Baseball Classic. Tommy John typically takes 12 to 18 months to fully recover, and Mike Rizzo and company will assuredly give Cavalli all the time he needs before resuming baseball activities. The good news is that Tommy John is not as devastating to a career as it once was, and the prevalence of the injury has led to a refinement in the process and subsequently many more success stories.
Who do the Nationals turn to in the rotation after Cade Cavalli's injury?
This is why pitching depth is always important, and the Nationals do not have a ton of it. Davey Martinez had said Chad Kuhl will get the first opportunity to start after Cavalli's injury, but Kuhl is not on the 40 man roster, so he is not a lock to replace Cavalli just yet. Two other options are players currently on the 40 man roster in Cory Abbott and Paolo Espino, the latter of which has excelled in spot starts for the Nationals over the past couple of seasons. Abbott made 9 starts for the Nationals last season, pitching to a 6.00 ERA in 39 innings.
There aren't many notable Free Agents left this late in March, but in the Nationals' case, there actually may be better options externally. Players like Dylan Bundy, Chris Archer and Mike Minor are all still free agents and will likely take a one year, prove it type of deal in order to pitch this season. If they outperform their contracts, the Nationals could trade them at the deadline to further advance their rebuild efforts.