It’s not often that a minor leaguer gets top billing in a six-piece trade involving an established big-league hitter, especially when that hitter has batted over .300 in two of the past three seasons and owns a career .298 average and 119 OPS+.
But that’s what happened with Thursday’s deal between the Rays and Cardinals. Tampa Bay sent lefty pitching prospect Matthew Liberatore, minor league catcher Edgardo Rodriguez and a Compensation B pick in the 2020 MLB Draft to St. Louis for outfielder/first baseman Jose Martinez — owner of that .298 average in nearly 400 big-league games — outfielder Randy Arozarena and a Compensation A pick in 2020.
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Part of it was timing. When ESPN’s Jeff Passan first reported the deal on Twitter, Liberatore was the only name he had confirmed, and it stayed that way for quite a while (relatively speaking). It was reported that an outfielder or two was heading to Tampa Bay, but the Cardinals have lots of young outfielders who could have fit that bill. So Liberatore stayed in the headlines and atop the tweets of speculation.
So who, exactly, is Matthew Liberatore and how does he fit into the Cardinals’ plans going forward? We’ll discuss the latter part in a minute, but (spoiler!) his acquisition has spawned a thousand other rumors, too. Well, maybe not a thousand but lots of ‘em. First …
Five things to know about Matthew Liberatore
1. Liberatore is a 6-5 left-handed pitcher who was drafted in the first round of the 2018 MLB Draft by the Rays, No. 16 overall, out of Mountain Ridge High in Glendale, Ariz. In his two seasons of professional ball, Liberatore owns a 2.59 ERA in 25 games (24 starts), with 113 strikeouts in 111 innings. He pitched rookie ball in 2018 and spent 2019 at Single-A Bowling Green. He was slated for high-A in 2020 by the Rays.
2. For a scouting report, let’s turn to MLB.com, where Liberatore ranks No. 41 on the list of Top 100 prospects.
MLB.com: A 6-foot-5 left-hander, Liberatore stands out for his combination of stuff and pitchability, with the makings of three pitches that could garner a 60 on the 20-to-80 scouting scale once fully developed. He sits in the low 90s and touches 95 mph with a fastball that plays above its velocity because he’s deceptive and gets such good extension over his front side. Liberatore’s curveball is a swing-and-miss hammer, thrown with three-quarters tilt and good spin rate, and he introduced a new, and very effective, slider during the spring. His diving changeup, meanwhile, is another promising pitch, one that plays nicely off his heater and could be his best secondary offering when all is said and done.
3. And for a projection, let’s go to Baseball America, where Liberatore was the No. 3 prospect in the Rays’ organization. Keep in mind, of course, that the Rays’ organization is STACKED with elite prospects, so getting to No. 3 is quite the honor. BA ranks Liberatore as the No. 2 prospect in the St. Louis organization.
Baseball America: Like Brendan McKay, Liberatore projects as a polished middle-of-the-rotation lefty. He thrives thanks to a wide assortment of pitches combined with excellent command. He’s about as safe a bet as a teen pitching prospect can be, and his size and smooth delivery give him a high upside as well. The excellent pitching environment of the Florida State League is the next test.
4. He’s long-time friends with another member of the Cardinals’ farm system. Nolan Gorman, another Phoenix-area prospect, was the 19th pick of the 2018 draft, three spots after Liberatore. The two created this video that caught lots of people’s attention.
Oh, and remember how Liberatore is the No. 41 prospect on MLB.com’s list of Top 100 prospects? Gorman’s three spots ahead, at No. 38.
5. In the U-18 Baseball World Cup final, Liberatore took the mound for Team USA and was brilliant, shutting out Korea for six innings in a game Team USA won, 8-0.
How does Liberatore fit into the Cardinals plans?
There are two schools of thought. Let’s examine.
1. Future rotation stalwart
It’s not possible to have too many good, young pitchers in a farm system, and Liberatore represents a big upgrade for the Cardinals’ system (as he would for any system, to be clear). He was mentioned as a possible top-three pick in the 2018 draft, but “slid” all the way to No. 16. He’s been excellent in the minors, and with his frame and stuff, it’s easy to see him occupying a spot in the St. Louis rotation for several years, starting in 2021 or 2022.
2. Trade bait
The Cardinals have made no real secret of their admiration of Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado over the years, and it just so happens that rumors are flying that the Rockies will make Arenado available for the right package of players. And it just so happens that a guy like Liberatore is exactly the type of cornerstone that would be required to put together a package that would entice the Rockies to deal Arenado. And it just so happens that adding a guy like Arenado — an elite fielder and middle-of-the-lineup bat — is pretty much exactly what the Cardinals need to add to their 2020 roster.
There are complications, of course. From a SN piece examining potential landing spots for Arenado, originally published during the Winter Meetings in December:
Let’s start with this: Arenado has full-no-trade protection, a perk of the eight-year, $260 million deal he signed with the Rockies. He’s not waving that right for anything other than a small number of franchises that are set up to be a regular World Series contender, something that doesn’t look likely in Colorado.
And there are seven years and $234 million remaining on that deal, with is no small amount for a team to take on, even though he’s been as consistent and productive and healthy as any superstar in baseball over the past five years. … Oh, and he has an opt-out clause after two years, so teams would have to be aware of the possibility of selling the prospect farm for him, only for him to walk after two years.
And those complications won’t be easily put aside by the Cardinals, who lean toward caution as a default setting when it comes to potential moves of this nature, as Post-Dispatch writer Ben Frederickson points out in this piece.
If not Arenado, maybe the Cardinals use Liberatore to land another impact player?
What about Mookie Betts? He’s a free agent after the 2020 season, but what if Liberatore was enough to be the big piece in a deal? The Red Sox are desperate to get under the luxury tax, and Betts reportedly has agreed to a record $27 million in arbitration this year. Plus, they’re not likely to sign him long-term, and Liberatore provides more certainty than any other draft pick they’d get as compensation if Betts left as a free agent.
From the Cardinals’ perspective, trading Liberatore — essentially, Jose Martinez and Randy Arozarena, players from a position of strength — and maybe another lower-level guy, for one year of Mookie Betts would be pretty enticing, right?
Anyway, it’ll be interesting, whether Liberatore is moved quickly, or whether he stays and eventually finds a big role in the St. Louis rotation.
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