They are the twin right arms atop the Washington Nationals’ system. Because of that, their similarities overshadow their differences. They are young and hard-throwing. They are both very tall. The word “they” will be used for Rutledge and Cavalli — or Cavalli and Rutledge — unless they are split by the many directions a career can go in.
The best case for the Nationals, though, is that they rise how they arrived. Rutledge, a 21-year-old out of San Jacinto College, was Washington’s first-round pick in 2019. Cavalli, 22 and out of Oklahoma, was its first-round selection this past June. On Thursday, in an exhibition against the New York Mets in Port St. Lucie, they made their Grapefruit League debuts in back-to-back innings.
Cavalli worked around a walk and his throwing error to strand two runners. Rutledge used a quick pickoff move to erase a leadoff single and navigate three major league regulars — Brandon Nimmo, Jeff McNeil and Dominic Smith — with 19 pitches. It was a promising afternoon for a club that’s short on big-name prospects. But it was also just a brief look at a semi-distant future.
“We got something special in these guys,” Manager Dave Martinez said before throwing a dash of water on that thought. “It’s baby steps with them.”
The results were broadcast on ESPN and splashed across social media: Cavalli, 6-foot-4, had his fastball clocked between 96 and 98 mph. He leaned on an impressive cutter to escape a jam of his making. Then Rutledge, 6-foot-8 and skinnier, threw mid-to-high-90s heat and won an 11-pitch battle with Smith. He did so by striking out the power-hitting left-handed hitter with a low slider.
These are shiny details for the Nationals, whose farm system was ranked last by a few outlets this year. Their prospects were largely missing from the annual top-100 rankings. That is, among other reasons, because of frequently making trades and fast-tracking young players such as Juan Soto, Carter Kieboom, Victor Robles and Luis García in recent years. But a dearth of homegrown, major league starters is a trend Washington has to curb before it’s too late.
Rutledge and Cavalli are at the center of that mission. That Joe Ross, Erick Fedde and Austin Voth have stayed on the fringe and are still competing for a rotation spot this spring makes it all the more urgent. After this season, Max Scherzer can become a free agent. So can Jon Lester, the Nationals’ expected fourth starter. Stephen Strasburg, 32, and Patrick Corbin, 31, still will have five and three years left on their contracts, respectively. Yet the rest of the staff, long Washington’s beating heart, will need a serious lift.
General Manager Mike Rizzo has never shied away from advancing young players to stay competitive. Before Soto, Kieboom, Robles and García, there were Strasburg and Bryce Harper. Rutledge and Cavalli could have the perfect mix of timing and skill set. Or that could apply to one and not the other.
“They’re going to go at their own pace,” Mark Scialabba, the Nationals’ assistant general manager for player development, said of Rutledge and Cavalli in the offseason. “Some pitchers are going to develop quicker than others.”
Back to the first point, then: They are different people capable of different things, whether on the mound or off it. Last week, Cavalli trimmed Martinez’s hair ahead of team picture day. Martinez felt the duration of the cut — about an hour — showed Cavalli was nervous about taking clippers to the manager’s head in the manager’s office. And that would seem true if Cavalli hadn’t suggested a faux hawk.
Cavalli was the go-to barber at Oklahoma and has an Instagram account (@cavz_cutz) to showcase his work. He is affable, always smiling, often looking like the popular kid in a high school hallway. He is no doubt sure of himself. (Martinez, 56, rejected the faux hawk because of his age.)
“He was like: ‘Hey, let’s get it right!’ ” Cavalli said of Martinez’s request, laughing through the retelling. “ ‘All right, I got you!’ So I went in his office, cut his hair a little bit. It was fun.”
Rutledge, by contrast, is a bit more reserved. Earlier in camp, a photographer shouted at the pair as they strolled between fields. Cavalli walked up, arms wide, and acted as if the older man was a close friend. Rutledge hung back, waved from a distance and thanked him for saying hello. Rutledge grins while listening to questions as the wheels turn in his brain, then offers deeply analytical answers about his process.
That brain is filled with the intricacies of modern pitching. Rutledge digs into video, analytics and movement data to perfect his delivery and grips. He considers not just spin rate, the poster child for new-age thinking, but spin axis — both X and Y — and how something such as scapula retraction could affect a pitch.
“There’s some certain guys that are what they call allergic to spin,” Rutledge said Thursday when asked about his developing curveball. “That’s something where I can flip an 0-0 curveball in for a strike and they’re just going to stare at it and now I’m 0-1. And then also using it as sort of a late count swing-and-miss pitch, where I’m throwing it starting down the middle and dropping it into the dirt.”
Before facing the Mets, Rutledge, Cavalli and some other young pitchers drove up Interstate 95 in a caravan of trucks. They honked and waved to each other at red lights. One car blasted Rage Against the Machine, Rutledge’s choice, to get them fired up.
It was a 45-minute trip that showed the sharp contrast between making it and still trying to. They were excited for a road exhibition that would have most veterans groaning. So if, in those moments, Rutledge and Cavalli seem like college-aged kids, high on life and opportunity, hoping for the best and expecting it will happen … that’s exactly what they are. The challenge is in seeing it through.