The St. Louis Cardinals acquired highly-touted pitching prospect Matthew Liberatore from Tampa Bay on Thursday, but the left-hander may not stay in St. Louis for long
The St. Louis Cardinals got back to the postseason after a three-year absence in 2019, but the lineup they field in 2020 will look different from the one that got them there. The deal they pulled off on Thursday guarantees that.
The Cardinals acquired left-handed pitching prospect Matthew Liberatore from the Tampa Bay Rays in a four-player deal that sends outfielders Jose Martinez and Randy Arozarena to Tampa. St. Louis is also getting minor league catcher Edgardo Rodriguez, while the two teams exchange draft picks in the compensation round.
The 6-foot-5 Liberatore was drafted by the Rays with the 16th overall pick in 2018 out of an Arizona high school. Last season, pitching for the Rays Single-A affiliate in Bowling Green, he went 6-2 with a 3.10 ERA in 15 starts, striking out nearly a batter per inning. He possesses a mid-90s fastball and a swing-and-miss curveball to go along with an effective slider and changeup. MLB Pipeline rates him as the 41st-best prospect in baseball and the fourth-best left-handed pitcher. In short, he’s the type of prospect clubs strongly covet.
Which is why his acquisition opens up a number of possibilities for the Cardinals. They can either keep him and add him to their already impressive repertoire of talented young pitchers that includes Jack Flaherty, Miles Mikolas, and Dakota Hudson, or he can be used as bait for a much bigger target.
The Cardinals are one of the teams that have made inquiries to the Colorado Rockies about the availability of All-Star third baseman Nolan Arenado. The 29-year-old is coming off his fifth straight season with at least 110 RBI, the longest such streak among third baseman in MLB history. His numbers may be skewed by playing in the thin air of Coors Field, but he combines his strong bat with elite-level defense, winning an NL Gold Glove in each of his seven seasons. The Cardinals 34-year-old third baseman Matt Carpenter is in the midst of a steady decline in production, and Liberatore is just the type of prospect the Rockies would demand in order to part with Arenado.
Another potential destination for Liberatore is Boston, where the Red Sox have been listening to offers for former MVP Mookie Betts all offseason. Liberatore will have an advocate in the Red Sox front-office: new Chief Baseball Officer Chaim Bloom was part of the Rays organization that drafted him two years ago.
The Cardinals boast a strong and deep outfield, making the departure of Martinez and Arozarena less impactful to them than it would be for most teams. Even without Marcell Ozuna, who remains a free agent, the Cardinals still have Harrison Bader and Dexter Fowler. They were also able to keep Tyler O’Neill, who’s due for a bigger role in their outfield in 2020. Tommy Edman, a utility-type player who roamed around the field in his rookie season, started 16 games in right-field and another six in their postseason run.
For the Rays, the deal continues an offseason spent upgrading their lineup in order to keep pace with the New York Yankees in the AL East. Martinez gives them a big bat—hitting .305 with 17 home runs and 83 RBI two seasons ago—but not much in the way of defense. He ranked 99th out of 114 outfielders with at least 500 innings last season in Defensive Runs Saved. He was 308th (out of 318) in Outs Above Average. The speedy Arozarena spent the majority of 2019 at Triple-A, hitting .358 with 15 home runs across the Minors while also stealing 17 bases. He had six hits in 20 at-bats for the Cardinals following a late-season callup.
The move that Cardinals President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak made on Thursday came as a surprise, amidst a quiet offseason for the reigning NL Central champs. But now that they have a prized prospect to dangle in front of other clubs, the remainder of their offseason just got more interesting.