By David Solomon
John Mozeliak and the Cardinals delivered a jolt to a relatively quiet offseason with last Thursday’s announcement that the club had acquired top pitching prospect Matthew Liberatore as the centerpiece of a deal that sent Randy Arozarena, Jose Martínez, and the 36th overall pick in the MLB Draft to the Tampa Bay Rays. While Liberatore, 20, along with catching prospect Edwin Rodríguez are almost certain not to make an impact on the major-league roster in the next season or two, the ramifications of the deal can be felt immediately.
The organization’s minor-league pitching depth has thinned
The Cardinals celebrated the success of starting pitchers Jack Flaherty and Dakota Hudson this past season, utilized Luke Weaver to acquire Paul Goldschmidt, and saw hard-throwing Ryan Helsley make his major-league debut and provide valuable contributions in the team’s run to the 2019 National League Central Division title and ensuing Division Series win over Atlanta. However, the emergence of so many young pitchers at the major-league level and the inclusion of others in trades in recent years have left the farm system thin. Prior to the Liberatore acquisition, High-A Palm Beach LHP Zack Thompson was the only pitcher included in the team’s top 10 prospects who has not spent time with the major-league club. While the young nucleus is poised to succeed in the near future, depth in the minors is critical as players age, move on, and inevitably succumb to injury. Liberatore, assuming he is not flipped later this offseason, gives the team that high-end pitcher ready to emerge around 2022 or 2023 as players like Flaherty and Hudson become arbitration eligible.
Jose Martínez is not an every-day National League player
There’s no denying Martínez can be a valuable member of any club for his offense, hard work, and infectious positive attitude. However, none of that can mask the fact that Martínez can’t perform adequately in the field, and it’s rare to play more than the 10 interleague games the Cardinals will play in American League ballparks with the designated hitter. While Martínez’s $2.125 million salary for next season is very affordable for a regular player, on a team with a glut of outfielders without defined roles, it’s a lot of money to pay when the club has younger, cheaper alternatives including Tyler O’Neill and Lane Thomas who could easily fill Martínez’s role as a bench bat while being also being able to contribute defensively.
Tampa rarely whiffs
The Rays’ insistence on acquiring Arozarena in the deal should raise flags for the Cardinals and their fans. Tampa rarely misses when identifying talent to acquire as well as when to pull the trigger and cut bait. Budgetary woes have forced the Rays to become especially adept at finding affordable, cost-controlled talent whether it be younger players and prospects or veterans who for one reason or another find their career at a crossroad.
Arozarena and Martínez both fit the Rays’ profile for players who thrive in their organization. Arozarena comes to St. Petersburg as a five-tool player with concerns about his approach to the game despite results saying otherwise. This has shades of the 2018 deal that sent Chris Archer to Pittsburgh for heralded outfield prospect Austin Meadows and former highly-regarded pitching prospect Tyler Glasnow, whose star has faded since reaching the Pirates’ major-league club. Given the chance for regular playing time with the Rays, Meadows blasted 33 home runs and drove in 89 while accumulating a .922 on-base plus slugging percentage en route to an All-Star game appearance. Glasnow went 6-1 with a 1.78 ERA in 12 starts albeit while missing almost four months with a forearm injury. Meanwhile, Archer has a 6-12 record with a 4.92 ERA in 33 starts with the Pirates. While that deal is an extreme example, it’s indicative of many other trades the Rays have made where they have managed to unload fading talent and get tremendous value in return that may not have been apparent to other teams.
What does the future hold?
Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado has been a frequently discussed name in Hot Stove league talk. The Rockies have made it known they’re looking for an elite pitching prospect in any deal for Arenado. Adding Liberatore to an organization that features his good friend and third-base prospect Nolan Gorman might be the missing piece that could set up a blockbuster. The latest rumor, reported by Fox’s Jon Paul Morosi, has Liberatore a likely centerpiece of a deal for Arenado. Other pieces remain uncertain. Acquiring Arenado would likely leave veteran infielder Matt Carpenter without a position. Carpenter, 34, would be owed $40 million through 2021, factoring in a $1 million trade escalator. Depending on whether Colorado is looking to acquire top prospects like Gorman, pitchers Dakota Hudson and Carlos Martínez, and a young outfielder like O’Neill, Thomas, or Harrison Bader could be in play to also be shipped to Colorado.
The Matthew Liberatore trade served as a jolt to what had been a relatively stagnant offseason, but it is almost certain this won’t be the last domino to fall as the Cardinals continue to tweak the roster in pursuit of the franchise’s first pennant since 2013.