WASHINGTON – Pitcher Cade Cavalli, the Nationals’ top draft pick earlier this year, will head to Instructional League in Florida.
Pitching coordinator Brad Holman will relax in Kansas for a few days, with the wedding of a niece upcoming in early October.
And Mark Scialabba, the Nationals’ assistant general manager, player development, has the challenging chore of making the transition from the alternate site in Fredericksburg, VA to setting up in shop West Palm Beach for a new-look Instructional League and the protocols that come with that.
As the Nationals wind down the alternate site in Virginia on Wednesday morning, Scialabba said the two goals were to provide players to the Major League team when needed in this 60-game season and continue the development of each individual player who took part in Fredericksburg at the new high Single-A home of their Carolina League affiliate.
“To some degree, we accomplished those goals. The main challenge is really creating a game environment. No matter what … it is still very difficult to create a Major League game environment,” Scialabba told Federal Baseball this week. “It was a great challenge because you are not competing against someone from another team. You are going against your own teammates. No fans are just like the big leagues, obviously. We are playing at different times of the day. You know the results are going to affect as much as they would in a normal game atmosphere.”
“It is about development, too,” he added. “You may be working on something you are trying to do for development purposes not as much for results. In the big leagues, it is about getting outs, it is about performing that day so you have to obviously raise your performance. We try to create that environment – it is a challenge to do so.”
Several players who were at the alternate site advanced to the Major Leagues for the first time this year, including infielder Luis García, outfielder Yadiel Hernandez, and pitcher Dakota Bacus.
At lower levels, players such as infielders Jackson Cluff and Drew Mendoza and pitcher Joan Adon went from ending the 2019 season with low Single-A Hagerstown to rubbing shoulders in Virginia with pitchers and position players with Major League stats on the back of their baseball cards.
Some of those veterans included outfielder Andrew Stevenson, infielder Wilmer Difo and pitcher Sterling Sharp, who made his Major League debut with the Marlins in August before being returned to the Washington system as a Rule 5 player.
That was a great opportunity for the younger players – though Scialabba said it is hard to duplicate the rigors of a long minor-league season. The South Atlantic League, which Hagerstown is part of, is known for some of the 10-hour bus rides after a road trip with players getting back to their apartment in the early-morning hours.
The camp also included Cavalli and fellow pitcher Jackson Rutledge, the top pick of the Nationals in 2019, who made six starts last year for Hagerstown.
“We would always want to have 120, 140 games with that sort of volume,” said Scialabba, a former Division III standout at Williams. “This environment does provide the younger players with a great opportunity to see how they perform, how their stuff plays up against advanced hitters.”
“It is exciting to see if your strengths play against the best that we have,” he added. “It is also a great learning environment to know that hey, I did work on throwing a changeup. I don’t have to worry about results as much I just need to know I have to throw 10 or 12 of these pitches today to know that I improve so I am better prepared for when the need arises.”
“Also, I know our players and staff had a great team environment here where we were trying to help each other where we could. You would have side conversations and a lot of feedback from each other so it could be an older catcher working with a younger pitcher,” he said.
Cavalli loved the Virginia site.
“The routine has been awesome, and the communication and the coaching,” he said Saturday during a Zoom session with reporters.
“I’m absolutely in love with this environment. I feel like I’ve gotten 100 times better down here. Even though it was the same thing every day, I absolutely enjoyed it.”
“There are still things you can do to improve your game,” Cluff told Federal Baseball of being at the alternate site with no minor league season.
“You can still get better in the cage. Even if I didn’t come out here, I would not think it was a wasted year. It may not be as good as playing every day. Coming out here every day and see live pitching and practicing every day with the guys definitely adds some icing to the cake.”
Hitting and pitching was just part of the alternate site – it was also a mental side with certain Major League protocols that had to be followed.
Now some of those players in Virginia will have to follow protocols in Florida.
“There is a little bit more flexibility with it not being tied to the Major League club,” Scialabba said of West Palm Beach.
“We will have our own policies and we will get approval from Major League Baseball on those.”
The Cleveland Indians received a lot of attention this summer as trades were made after some veterans didn’t follow virus protocol while on the road.
In Virginia, players stayed at a nearby hotel when not working out at the stadium in Fredericksburg.
“It does get monotonous,” Scialabba said. “Guys do want to play other teams.
“I have to give the players a ton of credit throughout this process; it is a testament to their work ethic and loyalty.”
Now some players not going to Instructional League will head to their homes for the winter. Is that a concern in light of the virus?
“Follow the local guidelines just like they did before they got to the alternate site or (Nationals Park for summer camp). We will provide them with offseason workouts and guidance in that regard; they will probably get some rest and recovery,” Scialabba said.
Mendoza, the infielder, told Federal Baseball he dealt briefly with COVID-19 while home in Florida before joining the alternate site in August.
Scialabba declined to comment to Federal Baseball this week about any COVID-19 test results during the alternate site camp.
Meanwhile, MLB released 2021 spring training schedules last week. And MLB hopes alternate sites are not part of next season as the minor league campaign was called off this year due to COVID.
“I hope we never have to do it again,” Scialabba said of the alternate site.