As the Washington Nationals continue to build up their veteran arms, some young ones are getting opportunities in Grapefruit League action early this spring.
Davey Martinez planned on a bullpen day in the club’s matchup with the New York Mets on Thursday afternoon, and before the game, he listed all of the pitchers he intended to send out there against the Nationals’ divisional rivals.
“We got [Kyle] Finnegan, who’s going to start the game,” Martinez said, “... and then after ... we’ve got some young guys: [Matt] Cronin, [Cade] Cavalli, [Jackson] Rutledge, [Bryan] Bonnell, [Jacob] Condra-Bogan, [and] Cole Henry. It’s their turn to pitch, and like I said, it’s a talented group of young pitchers that are in our camp, so I’m looking forward to watching these guys go out there and compete.”
Martinez also shared an exchange he had with Rutledge, the Nationals’ 21-year-old, 2019 1st Round pick (17th overall), who made ten starts between the Gulf Coast, New York/Penn, and Low-A South Atlantic leagues in ‘19 before he threw at the club’s Alternate Training Site last summer as part of the team’s 60-Man Player Pool.
“I saw Rutledge today, and talked to him, and joked around with him, I said, ‘Big debut today?’ And he goes, ‘Yeah.’
“And I said, ‘You excited?’ He goes, ‘Heck yeah.’
“And I said, ‘What’s the best pitch in baseball, and he said, ‘Strike one.’ I said, ‘Perfect, let’s go.’”
The fourth-year skipper said it wasn’t necessarily his plan to get the organization’s top arms on ESPN to give them some national exposure, but it just worked out that way.
[ed. note - “Martinez said he spoke to the young pitchers about this after the game:
“I don’t even know if they realized we had ESPN today. So, I joked around with them about, ‘Hey, you guys were on national TV today, so congratulations, you got that first one out of the way.’”]
“Just worked out it’s their day to throw,” Martinez said before the game.
“We had a couple of live bullpens with them, I mean live BPs with them. They threw some sides, once again, these are our young guys who are going to start. We got to get them in there, we got to get them stretched out, so it was their day to pitch, it just so happens that we had them in the same group, throwing at the same time, so they’ll [all] throw together.”
Martinez pointed to Henry, the Nationals’ 2020 2nd Round pick out of LSU, as a pitcher who has made a strong impression early after missing out on some important developmental work a year ago with minor league baseball shut down, though he did take part in instructs last fall.
“He’s got unbelievable mechanics, really good,” Martinez said. “He throws — he’s got three or four really good pitches. He’s very young for us, hasn’t pitched much because of the pandemic, so just want him to go out there, and like I said, locate his fastball and establish his fastball and compete. I’m looking forward to watching him as well.
“All these guys, good group of guys that are going to go out there for us, so I just want them to go out there compete and have fun.”
How did the organization’s young arms fare in Grapefruit League action?
Cavalli came on in the bottom of the second inning in Port St. Lucie, working with a high 90s fastball, which sat 96-98, but he threw four of his first five balls, for a leadoff walk to veteran catcher James McCann.
He bounced a couple four-seamers in the second at bat against Jonathan Villar, fell behind 2-1, but got a chopper to first with a 98 MPH 2-2 heater.
Cavalli fell behind Luis Guillorme 3-1, mixed in slider (86 MPH) and a two-seamer, (88) got to a full count, but threw away a ground ball back to the mound after knocking it down, which put men on second and third.
He was up to 20 pitches after he threw a 98 MPH 1-2 fastball by Khalil Lee, and got back-to-back strikeouts to complete the scoreless frame, with a 97 MPH 1-2 heater he threw to Drew Ferguson for the second strikeout: 24 pitches, 13 strikes.
Rutledge came on in the third. Brandon Nimmo singled on a 1-0 fastball (96 MPH), and the starter fell behind 3-0 on second batter, Jeff McNeil, got to 3-2, and picked Nimmo off first with a quick move. McNeil K’d swinging at a 96 MPH 3-2 fastball.
Dominic Smith fell behind Rutledge 0-2, back to 2-2, went to a full count, and Smith fouled off four fastballs (96-97), but Smith K’d swinging at and 84 MPH slider to end what was a 19-pitch inning for the right-hander.
Bonnell, 27, signed a minor league deal this winter, and worked around a single in a fairly quick bottom of the fourth.
With the score 4-1 in the Nationals’ favor, Henry, the Nationals’ 2020 2nd Round pick, gave up a one-out single and walk, then hit a batter to load the bases before giving up a grand slam by Pete Alonso on a 96 MPH first-pitch fastball outside Alonso powered out to right field, 5-4.
In what ended up an 8-4 loss, Condra-Bogan tossed a scoreless inning, and Cronin gave up three walks and a run in 2⁄3 of an inning of work.
Martinez’s thoughts on the young arms he sent out there? He focused mostly on Cavalli and Rutledge, but touched on some others as well.
“I thought they threw the ball really well,” the manager said.
“They went and they attacked the strike zone. Cavalli walked a guy there, but he kind of settled in a little bit, Rutledge came in and threw the ball really well.”
“We talk with them about focusing on throwing strikes, and I thought they looked good. It’s the first time they’ve pitched to big league hitters, so it was exciting to watch them go out there and compete. Those two guys, for me, they’re watching the veteran pitchers and they’re learning. I wish that we can all be together in one big clubhouse, but they absorb everything, they listen, they’re like sponges, and they’re doing really well.”
Asked about Cavalli’s outing, in particular, Martinez said he liked what he saw.
“He was very poised, for one,” he explained.
“There was no panic. He did go to his secondary pitches, which was kind of nice to see.
“So you know, the good thing is that he had a veteran catcher in Yan [Gomes] that could help him out at little bit, and he looked really, really good.”
“He works — he tries to work extremely fast, he really does. I mean, I’ve seen him before on video, and he’s a guy that gets the ball and goes. Sometimes you’ve got to slow things down a little bit and catch your breath, he seemed to do that there. And like I said, I liked what I saw out of him. He threw strikes, he threw strikes with his secondary pitches, it was really good.”
Seeing the younger pitchers work through trouble, Martinez said, can help the club learn a lot about their make-up.
“Absolutely. We want to see what they do when things are a little tough. And we watch their breathing, we watch their mechanics, and for the most part those guys were pretty good today, so, there’s still a lot of work to be done, obviously, but it was nice to get their feet wet. They had big smiles on their faces when they came out of the game. I asked them if they were nervous. Obviously they said, ‘Very.’
“And Cole Henry made a comment about getting his feet wet and he said they were soaked.
“It’s good. I’m looking forward to watching these guys continue to pitch and grow, but it’s baby steps with them, but they’re going to come out here and get a couple more innings, and then we’ve got to stretch them out.”
“Cronin,” the manager said at another point in his post game Zoom call, “... he wears a lot of emotions on his sleeve. So, it was kind of a different conversation with him. And I told him, I said, ‘Hey, we’ve got to hone in on your energy.’
“He’s a guy that pitches with a lot of energy. So we’ve got to kind of bottle that energy and use it to his advantage.”
“I think the big thing was that I can do it,” Rutledge said of his Grapefruit League debut.
“That I can go out there and be confident and be under control and get guys out. I don’t need to go out and try to be something that I’m not. Try to throw too hard, try to hit a corner too much, but really just be confident in my stuff and know I can get really good hitters out.”
“There was for sure a little nerves,” Cavalli said. “It was just fun being out there. I haven’t been in a game situation like that in forever. And then it being my first big league Spring Training game, it was good nerves. I wasn’t like scared or nervous like that, I was just excited and just had to settle in.”