John Mozeliak foreshadowed that some action could occur on the market this week when he appeared on KMOX’s Sports on a Sunday Morning with Tom Ackerman.
As the week progressed, rumors — both amateur and professional — started to point towards the Cardinals involvement in talks for Nolan Arenado, as well as Marcell Ozuna keeping them at the table.
With Ozuna, I read his comments as the Cardinals basically still having a short-term deal on the table that he doesn’t want to take, but his desire to return has kept them in consideration. Him saying if they “step up” seemed to indicate that they aren’t aggressively pursuing the return.
On Arenado, I would welcome that blockbuster and will discuss this topic later in the post.
Because, as it turned out, neither of those items were the action taken by the Cardinals.
The Real Trade
Yesterday, the Cardinals made a very exciting trade for the future of the organization. Late in the afternoon, word came out from Jeff Passan of ESPN that the Cardinals were acquiring 20-year old LHP Matthew Liberatore — the 16th overall pick in the 2018 draft and 31st ranked prospect in baseball — from the Tampa Bay Rays. It would be a couple hours before the full trade was announced — it’s been assumed the delay was the Cardinals trying to reach and inform all players involved prior to confirmation.
All in all, the trade ended up — first reported by Passan and confirmed by a Cardinals press release — as follows:
Tampa Bay receives: Randy Arozarena, OF ; Jose Martinez, OF/DH ; Comp Round A Pick (#38 overall)
St. Louis receives: Matthew Liberatore, LHP ; Edgardo Rodriguez, C ; Comp Roubd B Pick (#66 overall)
I will first say, in short, that this is a fantastic deal.
Now, to break it down from the Cardinals perspective.
Arozarena was the Cardinals #10 ranked prospect, according to MLB Pipeline. We saw him briefly in 2019 and would have like to see a little more due to his dynamic numbers at Memphis. However, despite his skills, he likely would have found himself no better than 5th or 6th on the Cardinals OF depth chart. In other words, he would have been returning to Memphis as depth. For Tampa he can get an opportunity as a 4th OF and potentially become more. He’s been a favorite of fans that follow the Cardinals minor leagues for a couple years now and is an exciting talent.
However, in the bigger picture of the Cardinals roster, he was essentially a spare part. A talented spare part, but spare all the same.
Jose Martinez is well known. At times over the last 3 seasons, he was the team’s best hitter. He doesn’t have tremendous power, but he hits and keeps hitting, especially against LHP’s (career .976 OPS, 160 wRC+) and as a pinch hitter (.392 OBP, 136 wRC+). However, we all know that he is not a fielder at any position. After dealing with an injury in August, Martinez was essentially limited to PH duties in September, and I believe that’s where his Cardinals’ career would have continued to trend. Despite his bat, he was likely the 26th man on the roster, hitting once per game and DHing in AL parks.
He was a joy to watch, embracing the game with great enthusiasm, and that will surely be missed, but his value was fading for the Cardinals and losing him is relatively inconsequential.
I do not want to come off as dismissive of these two players, they are not nothing. They are both talented players that could bring value to the Cardinals if there was a less redundant crowd in the OF. That depth needed to be thinned. Going in to the offseason, Derrick Goold reported that the Cardinals would likely seek to trade a few of their OF’s for someone that doesn’t require a 40-man roster spot, simultaneously cleaning up the roster as well as un-crowding the position. That is exactly the move they made, though I never expected it to return someone that is potentially a Top 30 prospect in all of baseball when the 2020 ranking get released. That’s huge.
I will briefly discuss the exchange of competitive balance draft picks. Standard draft picks in baseball cannot be used in trades, but those rules don’t apply to competitive balance picks. These are picks the Cardinals and Rays received based on market size. Aside from jumping 28 spots in the draft, Tampa Bay will also gain about $950,000 in their draft pool due to the difference in slot allocation. This leap forward seems like it could be very valuable to the Rays, where the fall back isn’t THAT big of a deal for the Cardinals — though it’s not insignificant. This pick swap probably put the deal over the top.
Next, a short mention of the catcher received, Edgardo Rodriguez. He has shown a hit tool in super limited exposure in the lowest levels of Tampa’s system. He is only 19 years old, so alot remains to be seen as to whether he becomes anything.
Finally, the centerpiece. Matthew Liberatore.
Because I’m not prospect expert, I’ll give you this blurb from Keith Law’s article regarding the trade.
Liberatore was the Rays’ first-round pick in 2018, and a top-five talent in that draft class. He just turned 20 in November and is coming off a solid full-season debut in low-A Bowling Green, where he made 15 starts and threw 78 1/3 innings with 76 strikeouts and 31 walks. Liberatore works in the low 90s and will run it up to 95-96 mph, with big spin rates on his breaking stuff and a very good feel for pitching for his age, which I’d say made his walk rate a bit surprising. He’s a really good athlete, the kind of raw material teams seem to particularly value right now because of the belief that strong athletes take better to mechanical and pitch adjustments. I think he has No. 2 starter upside, given the velocity, quality breaking stuff, and athleticism, but of course he’s got the risk associated with any 20-year-old who hasn’t even thrown 100 innings in a season yet.
He should immediately be considered as the Cardinals top pitching prospect and adds to a nice little list of upside lefthanders that the team has acquired in the last 19 months — Genesis Cabrera, Zack Thompson, and Steven Gingery being the others — after having Austin Gomber as the system’s lone projectable lefty for a few years.
In the context of prospects, he is a higher rated prospect than Nolan Gorman — the two are real life best buds, by the way — which gives the Cardinals a rather impressive top end on their system. This pipeline continues to extend the Cardinals competitive window, which has basically been open since they rebooted the talent base in 2008. The Cardinals are very good at not giving themselves an expiration date — something the rivals to the north appear to have done. This trade furthers that always-contending pursuit.
The Remaining Outfield Situation
So this leaves the Cardinals with an OF mix of: Dexter Fowler, Harrison Bader, Tyler O’Neill, Lane Thomas, Tommy Edman, and Dylan Carlson.
Let me start by saying I love the athleticism of the group. That should lead to a strong defensive unit, at the very least.
I am intrigued by the offensive potential of Lane Thomas, O’Neill, and Carlson. By season’s end, those could be the 3 regular OF’s. The team has publicly admitted they regret not playing Thomas more, sooner, prior to his wrist injury. I believe it’s time to let Tyler O’Neill eat. Given the at-bats, I believe he can bring every bit of the production that they are losing from Ozuna. O’Neill’s issue has been staying on the field when he gets his chances. If he avoids the IL, this could be the year his potential is finally realized. I’m of the opinion that his ghastly K% will stabalize with regular at-bats. I think he is the type that suffers from sporadic playing time.
I like this outfield mix quite a bit and want to see O’Neill, Thomas, Carlson, and maybe even Justin Williams, get a chance to prove themselves.
The Imaginary Trade
And now for some thoughts on the blockbuster that hasn’t happened.
Almost all Cardinals fans would love to have Nolan Arenado. He would give the Cardinals, without a doubt, the best defensive infield in baseball. Technically, based on the new Statcast measurement Outs Above Average, they are already the best infield in baseball without him. Dakota Hudson might win the Cy Young if you add Arenado to that group, it would be almost unfair.
So here are some bullet points on this trade idea
- Don’t be concerned about the “Coors Effect” as it has been widely researched that Coors both helps Rockies players at home and negatively affects them on the road. Simply, their road numbers as a Rockie do not represent their normal if they were not playing for Colorado. Matt Holliday is a shining example of this, look into his splits sometime. Here’s an article from Mike Petriello discussing it if you are interested.
- Stop thinking that this trade would require one of Dylan Carlson, Nolan Gorman, or Matthew Liberatore. These are Top 50 prospects. Arenado’s contract is too massive to require the trading of a Top 100 prospect, let alone a Top 50. Arenado is entering the 2nd year of what is the 7th largest contract — by total value — in Major League history. This isn’t your typical blockbuster. It is closer to the Stanton trade, but with less urgency. That trade involved the Marlins taking on Starlin Castro’s remaining 2 years and $23M contract as salary relief upfront, as well as being on the hook for an additional $30M if Stanton does not opt-out following the 2020 season. That $53M financial relief still only allowed the Marlins to net 2 prospects, neither of which were highly-touted. Jorge Guzman was roughly the Yankees 20th best prospect at the time, and Jose Devers was 18 and yet to play a game in the United States. That is a very, very light return. Arenado is a different situation, for sure, but the blueprint should hold. In the context of the Cardinals, the parallel would be along the lines of the Rockies taking on Fowler’s remaining 2-years and $33M, and then kicking in another $20M if Arenado does not opt-out after the 2021 season. Then you would probably see at least one of the Cardinals Top 30 prospects, something in the 10-15 range, probably a pitcher of some kind and another major league piece like Lane Thomas or Harrison Bader. These are the types of players that get moved for a contract of that size. If the Rockies are demanding a Top 50 prospect, then they are probably just hanging on to Arenado because no team is making that move, not when they could have pursued Anthony Rendon — can still pursue Josh Donaldson — for just money.
It’s fun to dream, but let’s at least be realistic in the conversation. Those 3 prospects mentioned would not be part of a deal, that’s just not how teams operate. This isn’t the equivalent to Yoan Moncada being moved for Chris Sale, as Sale was on an absolute sweetheat team-friendly contract. It requires far less prospect value when a contract this big is involved.
I want Arenado, it would be awesome. I think the Cardinals have the pieces to make the deal. I have zero expectations of it actually coming to fruition, though.
For now, let’s celebrate the trade that did happen! It was a good one, even though it’s effect on 2020 is limited.
Thanks for reading.