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Nats' Cavalli leading the way toward Washington

Right-hander's K-heavy debut grabbed spotlight in evolving system
Cade Cavalli struck out 33.5 percent of the batters he faced during the 2021 season. (Rick Nelson/MiLB.com)
@SamDykstraMiLB
January 10, 2022

Each offseason, MiLB.com goes position by position across each system and honors the players -- regardless of age or prospect status -- who had the best seasons in their organization. Click here to locate your favorite club.

Each offseason, MiLB.com goes position by position across each system and honors the players -- regardless of age or prospect status -- who had the best seasons in their organization. Click here to locate your favorite club.

Few farm systems are as ready to turn the page than the one in Washington.

Winners of the 2019 World Series, the Nationals fell to No. 30 in MLB Pipeline's 2021 preseason farm system rankings following trades that depleted the system and low Draft slots that kept it from replenishing with top-of-the-line talent. So when the Major League club went into sell mode ahead of the Trade Deadline in July, there was a lot of room for growth and potential for impact with the prospect additions brought in from other organizations.

Indeed, 10 of the Nationals' Top 30 prospects were acquired via July trades alone. The Max Scherzer-Trea Turner blockbuster with the Dodgers brought in Top 100 prospects Keibert Ruiz and Josiah Gray (both have since graduated) along with Donovan Casey and Gerardo Carrillo. Aldo Ramirez, Riley Adams and Mason Thompson came over from the Red Sox, Blue Jays and Padres, respectively, while a deal with the A's secured Drew Millas, Richard Guasch and Seth Shuman.

That all came in the same month the Nats drafted No. 54 overall prospect Brady House with the 11th overall pick. The Washington system didn't just get a fresh coat of paint in 2021; it seemed to get all new trimmings as well.

"It's really exciting because having spent the time to see where we were at A ball and where we were at the camp league, I was like, 'Oh my goodness,'" said new director of player development De Jon Watson. "So with a couple of more Drafts like we just had, this can be really fun really quick. We're just tightening up some of the smaller areas. We have really good instructors here. I think Mark Scialabba and Doug Harris did a good job. We just have to tighten up some of the smaller areas and refine where we are with our execution. It'll be a little quicker than people think."

In terms of Organization All-Star recognition, which favors those who were part of a system for an entire season, the additions mentioned above lacked the playing time for strong consideration. Clearly, the Minor Leaguers recognized below used their 2021 campaigns to solidify their standing and get a leg up in the Nats' coming rebuild.

Nationals Organization All-Stars

Catcher -- Israel Pineda, High-A Wilmington (77 games): Power in the bat and power in the arm are what got the 21-year-old backstop here. Pineda launched 14 homers in 77 games with the Blue Rocks, placing him in a tie for fourth among Nationals Minor Leaguers, and his .181 isolated slugging percentage placed fifth among full-season qualifiers in the system. Those numbers saved an otherwise rough .208/.260/.389 slash line over 315 plate appearances. (A low .239 BABIP may have played a role as well.)

Beyond the pop, Pineda also put his above-average throwing arm on display. He threw out 27 of 67 attempted basestealers at Wilmington for a caught-stealing rate of 40.3 percent, and his 65 assists led all catchers in the High-A East. It was a rough year for catchers in the system -- highlighting the need to acquire Ruiz, Adams and Millas -- but Pineda showed enough to point to a possible backup Major League role someday.

"He was only 21 coming into the season, but I thought he made some positive strides in that league at that age," Watson said. "The swing continues to get better. The catch-and-throw has a chance to be real, and the power is definitely real."

First baseman -- K.J. Harrison, Double-A Harrisburg (90 games): Acquired from the Brewers in an August 2018 deal for Gio Gonzalez, Harrison spent the entire season at Harrisburg -- the same place he ended the 2019 campaign -- and set career highs with 14 homers (tying Pineda for fourth in the organization) and a .450 slugging percentage. The Oregon State product posted a .243 average, in part due to a 30 percent K rate, but his above-average pop helped him get a 105 wRC+, best among Nats full-season first basemen. Harrison mixed in seven starts behind the plate on top of 28 more at DH as Harrisburg tried to keep his right-handed bat in the lineup.

Second baseman -- Jake Noll, Triple-A Rochester (118 games): Noll was selected as the Nationals' Minor League Player of the Year back in the fall and made for an easy pick both there and here. The 27-year-old led Washington full-season qualifiers with a .300 average, .494 slugging percentage, .840 OPS, 123 wRC+, 131 hits, 69 RBIs, 28 doubles and 48 extra-base hits. His 17 homers ranked second in the organization. He accomplished all of that while striking out in only 15.6 percent of his plate appearances, a solid contact rate for a player with such slugging numbers.

The 2016 seventh-rounder spent the plurality of his defensive innings at the keystone but also saw time at both infield corners as well as all three outfield spots. This is his third Org All-Star nod after previously being honored in 2016 and 2018.

"He stays in the middle of diamond, and he does not miss mistakes," Watson said. "It's just a matter of finding the right opportunity where he fits in because he handled the strike zone. He did well versus both sides. It's about finding the right fit for him on the club, but he does have Major League value because the offensive approach is so consistent."

Third baseman -- Jake Alu, Wilmington (39 games), Harrisburg (56 games): Alu may not have been on many radars entering the season as a 2019 24th-rounder who was last seen posting a .630 OPS over 45 games at Class A Short Season Auburn. He placed himself on the map last summer by hitting .303/.357/.490 with five homers and eight steals in his 39 games at High-A, earning a promotion on July 2. He was much more of a contact hitter at Double-A (.264/.315/.411), but by that point, he had grabbed the attention of Nats officials. Notably, his 10 homers in 2021 nearly doubled the six he hit over his four years at Boston College and came in 26 fewer games.

Alu began the season as mostly a second baseman at Wilmington but got the majority of his looks back at the hot corner following his move to Harrisburg. Playing both roles could give even more chances at the upper levels in 2022 and beyond.

Shortstop -- Luis García, Rochester (37 games), Washington (70 games): It isn't typical for players with more Major League experience than Minor League experience to make these lists. But García's time with Rochester (along with a dearth of other options for this position) made his candidacy too good to overlook. The left-handed slugger hit .303/.371/.599 with 13 homers over 37 games during three separate stints with the Red Wings. That .599 slugging percentage was fifth-best among Triple-A East hitters with at least 150 plate appearances, and his .296 isolated slugging percentage was equal to Bobby Witt Jr.'s at the same level.

García couldn't duplicate his Triple-A success in the Majors (.242/.275/.411 over 247 plate appearances), but as quickly as he moved up and graduated from prospect status, it's important to remember he still won't turn 22 until May.

Outfielders

Daniel Palka, Rochester (106 games): After spending 2020 in the KBO, Palka signed a Minor League deal with the Nats in mid-April, roughly two weeks before Opening Day. It turned out to be a solid way for the outfielder to rebuild his stateside stock in his age-29 season.

The left-handed slugger led Nationals farmhands with 18 homers in his 106 games for Rochester. His 14.5 percent walk rate and 123 wRC+ were tops among the organization's full-season qualifiers, while his .472 slugging percentage and .836 OPS placed second. Palka, who previously played in The Show with the White Sox in 2018 and 2019, may have pushed for a Major League spot if he hadn't run out of steam late, hitting just .155 with a .612 OPS in September.

He elected free agency in November and signed a Minor League contract with the Mets a month later.

Ricardo Méndez, Low-A Fredericksburg (60 games), Wilmington (25 games): It isn't often that you see a player put up such consistent numbers across two different levels in the same season. The 21-year-old left-handed slugger hit .289/.353/.427 at Fredericksburg. Compare that to a .284/.321/.471 line with Wilmington. His OPSes at the two stops (.780 and .792) were only 12 points apart with the higher number coming at the tougher level.

On top of the consistency, Méndez's five homers were two more than his combined total from the 2017, 2018 and 2019 seasons, spent mostly in short-season ball. He went from playing mostly in the corners at Low-A to spending the bulk of his time in center at High-A, and that move would certainly help his value, if it can stick the higher he climbs. Watson was even willing to put a Gregor Polanco comparison on Méndez.

"There's something to him," he said. "He has a really good feel in the outfield. His routes and jumps are outstanding. He's a solid average runner. Some power has shown up in his offensive approach, and it's sneaky power. For us, he really needs to understand how to work that top hand in his swing, so when the ball is on the outer third, he can drive that thing consistently to that left-center gap. ... Overall, the strength has come. The body composition has changed, and you're starting to see some of the results."

Justin Connell, Wilmington (98 games): Only one Nationals Minor Leaguer hit above .250 and stole at least 20 bases in 2021. That designation belonged to Connell. The 2017 11th-rounder ranked second in the organization with a .293 average at High-A and placed second with 21 thefts.

The 22-year-old didn't hit for much power with only 22 of his 109 hits going for extra bases, but he did make a good amount of contact, striking out in 17.3 percent of his plate appearances. That promising bat-to-ball rate earned Connell a 107 wRC+, third-best among Nationals full-season outfielders.

"He brings consistent energy to the ballpark every day," Watson said. "Sneaky runner. Another line-drive gap guy with some occasional pull-side power. I thought he made really good adjustments and put the ball in play. You see his average moving from .275 to .285, and it makes you think, 'Who is this dude?' He makes you pay attention from a development standpoint and from a scouting standpoint."

Right-handed starting pitcher -- Cade Cavalli, Wilmington (seven starts), Harrisburg (11 starts), Rochester (six starts): Cavalli was an easy pick for Nationals Minor League Pitcher of the Year, but if there was an overall MVP award for the entire system, he could have walked away with that, too.

The 2020 first-rounder led all Minor League hurlers with his 175 strikeouts at three different levels. His 33.5 percent K rate ranked seventh among 155 Minor Leaguers with at least 100 frames last season, while his 2.86 FIP placed sixth in the same group. Cavalli's 3.36 ERA was tops among Nats full-season qualifiers, and his 123 1/3 frames were second-most in the entire organization.

Utilizing four above-average to plus pitches, the Oklahoma product was able to shoot through the Washington system in his first full season. He began to bump into control issues at the upper levels as advanced hitters learned to lay off his pitches outside the zone, but his true swing-and-miss stuff gives him a promising ceiling as a potential No. 2 in a Major League rotation.

"I knew how quickly he had kind of ascended to that Triple-A level, but his poise was outstanding," Watson said. "He worked four pitches, and when he got in trouble, he didn't back off of his stuff. He continued to attack the strike zone. For me, it was watching that poise and the ability to stay in the zone and compete against more advanced competition. He'll be fine-tuning some of the other things, but it can happen relatively quickly for him."

Left-handed starting pitcher -- Mitchell Parker, Fredericksburg (12 games, 10 starts), Wilmington (11 games, 11 starts): Washington's No. 15 prospect trailed only Cavalli in the K category among Nats farmhands after finishing with 144 punchouts in only 101 2/3 innings. That should be the biggest takeaway from Parker's first full season, considering his other numbers (4.87 ERA, 1.39 WHIP) don't quite pop. That said, the 2020 fifth-rounder's 3.88 FIP spoke much more closely to Parker's performance level in his first full season and gave all involved hope that the other numbers will follow moving forward.

"I saw Mitchell in the middle of the year, and it was a three-pitch mix with some size and strength," Watson said. "I thought that the breaking ball was his out-pitch and chase pitch. It was a big three-quarter curveball he was able to land for strikes. I feel like he needs to use the change a little bit more, but he's got some upside. He has a a chance to be a back-of-the-rotation-type starter. "

Relief pitcher -- Alberto Baldonado, Harrisburg (six games), Rochester (28 games), Washington (14 games): Baldonado signed with the Nationals as a Minor League free agent last January as relief depth and proved to be more than that. The 28-year-old southpaw opened briefly at Double-A before being sent to Triple-A on May 26. He posted impressive enough performances that Washington gave him his Major League debut on Sept. 2 and used him out of the big league bullpen the rest of the way.

The Panama native, who previously played in the Mets and Cubs systems, posted a 2.88 ERA and 1.01 WHIP with 47 strikeouts and only nine walks over 40 2/3 innings in the Minors last season. He averaged around 94 mph with his fastball and mixed in an upper-70s slider and occasional mid-80s changeup.

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.