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Cole Henry vs. Cade Cavalli; Has Henry overtaken Cavalli as the Nationals' top Pitching Prospect?
With Cade Cavalli struggling in Triple-A, has Cole Henry overtaken him as the Nationals' top pitching prospect?
Cade Cavalli is pitching the worst he ever has, while Cole Henry has been dominant. Let’s talk about it. To do this, first we should examine their careers, and see how their performances compare in different levels.
As draft prospects, they were actually pretty similarly rated, despite Cavalli being drafted a round ahead of Henry. Both were graduates of four year colleges (LSU for Henry, Oklahoma for Cavalli). Both are 6’4” with upper 90’s fastballs, and wipeout breaking balls. Cavalli has a little more gas on his heater and a better curve and slider. Henry was seen as the prospect with better command. For these reasons, Cavalli has been ranked higher nearly unanimously, but after the last couple of months, is it deserved?
Rookie ball is a place where neither success, nor failure matter very much; only how prospects succeed and fail; it doesn’t determine the quality of a player. For pitchers, it is a test of ‘stuff’. Whether Cavalli’s stuff was good enough was never a question at that level. This, along with the fact that Cavalli was drafted in 2020 during the COVID shutdown, Cavalli went straight to A+ Wilmington when MiLB restarted in 2021, skipping Rookie Ball and Low A Fredericksburg. Everyone knew Cade’s stuff could play. Henry, on the other hand, was sent to the FCL Nationals for Rookie Ball. Henry only started two games, but he was not good, with a 6.75 ERA. However, his 7 Ks in 4 IP was promising enough that he was moved up to Wilmington.
The A+ level is similar to Rookie in that throwers- rather than pitchers -can still dominate, and pure stuff is often good enough. Cavalli and Henry have pretty similar sample sizes at 40.2, and 43 IP, respectively. Both dominated; Cade had a 1.77 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, and 15.7 K/9. Henry had eerily similar numbers with a 1.88 ERA, 0.79 WHIP, and a 15.8 K/9. Both were just blowing hitters away with their fastballs, and often getting whiffs on breaking balls that would be considered ‘waste’ rather than ‘chase’ by Baseball Savant. This is the last point that they are this similar because after this they begin to diverge.
The jump to AA is widely considered the largest jump in the minors, it’s where prospects can test themselves against guys with at least a couple of seasons of professional experience. You can’t just rely on a high 90’s fastball, or expect to get a whiff on every slider in the dirt. AA is where the throwers are separated from the pitchers. Cavalli spent most of 2021 in Harrisburg, throwing 58 innings, while Henry has spent all of 2022 there (15 IP). Despite the difference in sample size, I still feel confident in the trend: Cade Cavalli has gotten less effective at each level of the minors, while Cole Henry has gotten even better. This isn’t to say Cade was bad in AA, far from it! He had an incredible 2.79 ERA, a 1.28 WHIP, and a 12.41 K/9. But, Cole Henry has posted a 0.57 ERA, 0.87 WHIP, and 13.19 K/9! Henry is coming off of injury so he’ll likely stay in Harrisburg until he’s built up to 90+ pitches, however Cavalli’s play was more than enough for the Nats to decide to call him up.
Every player in AAA either has some MLB experience, or is a top prospect. This isn’t a change as big in magnitude as the previous one, but I consider it the most important jump. If you can’t cut it there, you can’t cut it in the majors, and Cade Cavalli has not cut it. Over 2021, and 2022 he has a 7.33 ERA and a WHIP over 1.60, striking out under a batter an inning. This isn’t a small sample size, relatively speaking at over 40 IP, so we have to consider what it means.
What Does This Mean?
To figure out an answer, let’s think about a few questions:
Is Cade Cavalli a bust?
What will AAA do to Cole Henry?
Who is better?
First of all, Cade Cavalli is not a bust. He’s been bad for sure, but the problem for Cavalli is not that he can’t pitch at the AAA level, rather he doesn’t have enough experience to know how to get MLB quality bats out. Remember, this is only his second year in pro ball; he is still incredibly raw, despite his performance in A+, and AA. Cavalli is not Stephen Strasburg, nor should we expect him to be. Relax, give him till the end of the year to refine his stuff, and improve command and confidence. If he isn’t doing better then, it will be concerning.
In the meantime, let's talk about if this will happen to Cole Henry too. And for me, no. He’s not going to have a 0.67 ERA of course, but because the Nats are taking it slower with him, and his far higher control grade than Cavalli, I have faith. Cole Henry still needs to prove himself, but I doubt he struggles the same way Cade has.
So finally we come to the conclusion: who is better? And quite frankly, despite the better command, and despite the better numbers this year, it’s still Cade Cavalli. I still believe deeply in Cole Henry, but honestly his lack of sample size and health issues scare me. As for Cavalli, his fastball, curve, and slider are just a tier better than Cole Henry’s, but you know what? I haven’t been this excited for a pair of pitching prospects in Nats history. Ever. And that is something to feel good about.