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Cade Cavalli Has Low Bar to Clear in MLB Debut

The Washington Nationals boast the all-time Major League pitching debut. On June 8, 2010, uber prospect Stephen Strasburg, then the most ballyhooed and scrutinized prospect in MLB history, mesmerized the baseball public as a national television audience listened to Bob Costas voice Strasburg’s dominance of the Pirates to the tune of seven innings pitched, two runs, four hits, 14 strikeouts and no walks. One could make a cogent argument that for all intents and purposes, the Nats were born that night.

The Nats have had plenty of exciting prospects debut in the years since, but by and large those debuts have disappointed or flat-out flopped. With Nats No. 4 prospect Cade Cavalli, their first-round pick in the 2020 Draft, set to debut on Friday vs. the Reds, it seems as good a time as ever to revisit and rank the prominent MLB debuts of Nats pitching prospects since Strasburg.

The following list will provide Bill James’ Game Score for each of these starts, but will not be based solely on that data point, as these are subjective. This list only includes those of pitchers who were prominent prospects at the time, either nationally or within the Nats’ system. Relievers are not included. Without further ado:

1. Brad Peacock*: 9/14/11 at Mets: 5IP, 0R, 2H, 2K, 3BB - 62 GSc

First, there is an asterisk right off the bat here, as Peacock’s start vs. the Mets was not his Major League debut. His debut came a week prior in relief against the Dodgers. However, I still chose to count this, as a one-inning relief outing on the West Coast didn’t deter from the excitement of seeing Peacock start a game. It is forgotten how good of a prospect Peacock was at this time. He was overshadowed by a rehabbing and soon-to-return Stephen Strasburg, as well as Bryce Harper in the minors at the same time. But Peacock was a top-50-type prospect who pitched in the Futures Game representing the Nats that summer. He was good, not overpowering in this game, but showed real promise. Months later, he would be part of the Gio Gonzalez trade with the A’s.

2. Joan Adon: 10/3/21 vs. Red Sox: 5.1IP, 2R, 6H, 9K, 3BB - 54 GSc

While Adon didn’t have a national profile, he was widely considered one of the best arms in the Nats’ system. This was a surprising promotion as Adon had barely pitched above High A, but he was summoned to start the season finale against a Red Sox team fighting for its playoff life. All Adon did was outduel Chris Sale and put a major scare into Beantown. Unfortunately, the bullpen blew a lead and cost Adon the win while the Sox clinched a playoff spot. Adon showcased some serious power stuff in this audition. However, it may have done more harm than good as Adon made the Nats’ Opening Day roster in 2022 well before he was ready for such an assignment, and it has been a complete nightmare of a season for him.

3. Josiah Gray*: 8/2/21 vs. Phillies: 5IP, 1R, 4H, 2K, 2BB - 55 GSc

Another asterisk here as Gray had already made two Major League appearances for the Dodgers before this trade. Nonetheless, this was an exciting debut for Nats fans as it gave them a chance to quickly evaluate one of the key players they acquired in the Max Scherzer trade. Gray was hardly overpowering in this performance, but he was quite effective against a dangerous Phillies lineup.

4. Joe Ross: 6/6/15 vs. Cubs: 5IP, 3R, 6H, 4K, 0BB - 47 GSc

Ross, who came over with Trea Turner in Mike Rizzo’s great fleecing of the Padres in the Wil Myers trade, made it to the majors fairly quickly. Facing a postseason-bound Cubs team was a difficult first assignment, but Ross mostly handled it well.

5. Reynaldo Lopez: 7/19/16 vs. Dodgers: 4.2IP, 6R, 10H, 9K, 1BB - 28 GSc

This is one of the most polarizing Nats pitching debuts. Lopez got lit up on the scoreboard and hit column, but also struck out nine Dodgers in fewer than five innings. His power stuff was evident, but the results were terrible. So despite the bad line, it was still more or less encouraging.

6. Lucas Giolito: 6/28/16 vs. Mets: 4IP, 0R, 1H, 1K, 2BB - 59 GSc

Giolito was by some outlets the No. 1 prospect in all of baseball in 2016, despite an up-and-down season in Triple A. This was probably the most anticipated debut for a Nats pitcher since Strasburg, given Giolito had ranked high on prospect lists for years and started the Futures Game twice. On the surface, the numbers look good here, but if you watched this game, you probably left underwhelmed. Giolito was tabbed as a power pitcher with an 80-grade fastball, yet he was throwing in the low 90s for much of this game, didn’t exhibit good command and got some good fortune to escape unscathed before his debut was cut short by rain. I distinctly remember watching this game and thinking, “That’s not what was advertised.” Mets announcers calling the game echoed this sentiment, with Keith Hernandez saying: “This is the best prospect in baseball? I expected a lot more.” It was the beginning of a very disappointing Nats career that didn’t last much longer before being traded.

7. Tommy Milone: 9/3/11 vs. Mets: 4.1IP, 4R, 6H, 2K, 0BB - 37 GSc

Pitching-wise, this was a bad debut. However, Milone gets bonus points for hitting an absolute bomb in his first career at-bat! That’s still one of the most fun moments of that era of Nationals baseball.

8. Nate Karns: 5/28/13 vs. Orioles: 4.1IP, 3R, 5H, 3K, 2BB - 42 GSc

You may not remember, but Karns was a good prospect who had appeared on top-100 lists. We’re hitting a turning point in this list where the performances go from underwhelming to horrendous.

9. Yunesky Maya: 9/7/10 vs. Mets: 5IP, 4R, 4H, 3K, 2BB - 42 GSc

The Nats’ first Cuban signing. Yeah … he was bad.

10. Austin Voth: 7/14/18 at Mets: 4.1IP, 7R, 9H, 3K, 3BB - 17 GSc

The fact that there are still two more entries to come is all you need to know.

11. Erick Fedde: 7/30/17 vs. Rockies: 4IP, 7R, 10H, 3K, 2BB - 15 GSc

Fedde has been much maligned by Nats fans, which makes it hard to remember that once upon a time he was an exciting prospect ranked around the top 50 in most places.

12. A.J. Cole: 4/28/15 at Braves: 2IP, 4ER, 9H, 1K, 1BB - 12 GSc

Cole, also once a top-50 type overall prospect, delivered the antithesis to Strasburg’s debut here. However, this game in Nats history is fondly remembered, as the boys battled from a 9-0 deficit to stun the Braves in Atlanta thanks to a ninth-inning homer by former Brave Dan Uggla. Ahh, the 2015 season was weird.

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