photo: Matthew Liberatore (Team USA Baseball)
ESPN’s Jeff Passan broke a major news story concerning the St. Louis Cardinals on Thursday.
Well-regarded pitching prospect Matt Liberatore has been traded from the Tampa Bay Rays to the St. Louis Cardinals, sources familiar with the deal tell ESPN. It's part of a trade expected to send major league pieces back to Tampa Bay, which has been searching for outfield bats.
— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) January 9, 2020
About two hours later, Ken Rosenthal offered further details.
The trade between the #Rays and #STLCards is a big one, involving six pieces, three on each side, sources tell The Athletic. At least two of those pieces are draft picks. LHP Matthew Liberatore, heading to STL, still only known name.
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) January 9, 2020
Passan is back with most of the detail.
The St. Louis Cardinals are trading OF Jose Martinez, OF Randy Arozarena and a Compensation A pick (after 1st round) to the Tampa Bay Rays for LHP prospect Matt Liberatore, a low-level catching prospect and Compensation B pick (post-2nd), sources familiar with the deal tell ESPN.
— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) January 10, 2020
The final piece comes from Rosenthal.
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) January 10, 2020
The newest Cardinal standout.
The 20-year old left-hander’s long-standing friendship with fellow Arizona native and Cardinals no. 2 prospect Nolan Gorman has been well-documented.
— Matthew Liberatore (@libby3232) November 28, 2018
Brian Walton’s take
At first blush, here is how I see the trade – positively for the Cardinals.
The Cardinals move out two outfielders who I felt were at or near the end of a crowded competition. They also traded down 28 picks in the 2020 draft, from 38th to 66th, a plus for the Rays.
From a salary perspective, the Cardinals’ net savings are likely less than $2 million. Clearly this was not about money. However, St. Louis does clear two spots from a crowded 40-man roster.
Along with a young catcher, the Cards receive a 2018 first-round draft pick, a left-handed starting pitcher who has reached Class-A and should vault into the top tier of prospects in the Cardinals system (more analysis on how Liberatore exactly fits into The Cardinal Nation’s top 50 prospect list is coming very soon).
Martinez is what he is – an ideal bench bat/designated hitter type whose production for St. Louis dropped in each of the last two years to the point he was a below-average MLB hitter last season (97 OPS+, one tick below Dexter Fowler).
Arozarena has many backers based on his breakout 2019, from which we named him our system-wide Player of the Year – over the likes of Dylan Carlson. However, a season in which he accrued the best stats does not necessarily a top prospect-make. (Sorry, Yoda fans, but I have Star Wars on the brain.)
In my personal prospect rankings for 2020, which are one-third of the overall top 50 prospect site rankings you may be familiar with, I placed Arozarena 12th in the Cardinals system. With the other two votes factored in – a very strong fourth from our message board community and sixth by Derek Shore – Arozarena came in a solid seventh in the overall blended rankings.
In my (subscriber-only) Arozarena write-up, I went into considerable detail about why I feel Lane Thomas is a better prospect – both offensively and as a center fielder. I projected Randy as somewhere between a fourth outfielder in MLB and Gerardo Parra. Of course, both Arozarena and Thomas were stacked behind incumbent Harrison Bader.
Also, even with a left-field opening, Tyler O’Neill is here and now and Carlson is not far away. In other words, there is no post-trade issue with depth in the Cardinals outfield. So don’t assume this is a precursor to free agent Marcell Ozuna returning – though it should not be counted out, either.
While I like the trade itself, it is not a panacea for what ails the Cardinals. Other than freeing at-bats for others, one cannot point to an immediate improvement to a 2019 offense that was the team’s weakest link. Note that in Passan’s article about the trade, he mentions the Cardinals are still shopping Fowler. This could be a financial move to clear money for another addition, such as Ozuna.
It is worth noting that within the last few weeks, the Cardinals have disposed of both of their high-profile Cuban outfielders signed in the busy 2016-2017 period. Adolis Garcia was traded to Texas for cash considerations on December 21.
Not to be forgotten, catcher Rodriguez, 19, was a July 2nd signing in 2017 and made his professional debut in the 2018 Dominican Summer League. The Colombian countryman of Martinez moved to the Gulf Coast League in 2019, but was injured and played in just 10 games. The 6-foot, 207-pounder’s brief career slash line is .338/.389/.495/.885. Defensively, Rodriguez has just a 32.6 percent caught stealing mark (15 of 46).
On day one, there are no absolutes in prospect rankings or in assessing trades and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. However, when in doubt, look to the team that scored the best player. I believe that is the Cardinals with Matt Liberatore, who is ranked no. 41 overall in MLB by MLB Pipeline.
It is going to take at least a few years to prove or disprove this, however.
Liberatore Scouting Report from TCN’s Blake Newberry
Matthew Liberatore is a 20-year-old left-hander who was listed as the Rays number 3 prospect by Baseball America at the end of the 2019 season. He was selected 16th overall in the 2018 draft and, at the time, was regarded as a polished four-pitch prep pitcher. His tends to rely on his fastball, his curveball, and his changeup the most, but he also has feel for a slider. His true plus pitches are his curveball and changeup. His curveball has sharp break and tends to generate a lot of swings and misses, while his changeup is deceptive and reliable. Going into the draft, his changeup was much more advanced it is for mist high schoolers and that gave him an extra weapon once he reached professional ball. His fastball sits at 92-93 mph but can touch 95 and commands it well, making it a solid pitch despite its lack of elite velocity. His go-to breaking pitch – the curveball – has also dominated lower level competition as he can spin it and command it well. Finally, his fourth pitch, the slider, lags behind the other three but it is good enough to be usable, especially when he has three other solid offerings.
The southpaw has a large, 6’5’ frame and weighs 200 pounds which gives him some projection left. While size is not everything, it should certainly help him remain durable enough to handle a large amount of innings and pitch out of the rotation in the long term. Despite this large frame, he has a clean delivery and appears to repeat it well, allowing him to control all of his pitches and get true break on his off-speed and breaking offerings. If he can actualize the projectability that is left in him frame and add a couple ticks to his fastball to truly make it a plus pitch, then he could end up pitching at the top of the rotation. Most scouts already project him to be a mid-rotation starter or a top of the rotation starter, so if he was able to gain some more strength then his profile could solidify.
While some highly touted prep pitching draftees can struggle upon first entering professional ball, Liberatore did the exact opposite. In the Rays GCL affiliate in 2018 he posted a 0.98 ERA in 27 2/3 innings (8 starts) while fanning 32 hitters and walking 11. He also made one solid start at the Rays Appalachian League affiliate in 2018, allowing two earned runs in five innings. In 2019, the Rays recognized his advanced feel for pitching and allowed him to skip short-season Hudson Valley, instead promoting him to class A Bowling Green. He rewarded this decision with a 3.02 ERA in 80 1/3 innings (17 games) while striking batters out at a rate of 8.74 per nine innings. He could stand to reduce his walk rate a little bit (3.70 BB/9), but overall, he is not too wild. The native of Glendale, Arizona has also done a good job limiting the long ball so far in his professional career as he has yielded just two dingers in his first 113 professional innings.
Additionally, he induced groundballs at a rate of 57.3% in Bowling Green this season. This is impressive for such a young pitcher. However, it makes sense as his off-speed pitches are dominant, and scouts rave about his pitchability. He is a very advanced pitcher for his age and appears to be ready for a bigger challenge in the Cardinals system in 2020.
Liberatore spring training 2019 video from Prospects Live
For completeness, the Cardinals’ Thursday evening press release follows.
St. Louis Cardinals press release
The St. Louis Cardinals announced a four-player trade with the Tampa Bay Rays this evening (Thursday, January 9), acquiring top pitching prospect lefty Matthew Liberatore, minor league catcher Edgardo Rodriguez and the Rays Compensation B draft pick (66th overall), in exchange for outfielders Randy Arozarena, Josè Martínez and the Cardinals Compensation A draft pick (38th overall).
“We are extremely excited to be adding a top pitching prospect in Matthew Liberatore to our organization, and this trade also helps us to create more opportunity in the outfield for players like Tyler O’Neill, Lane Thomas and others,” stated Cardinals’ President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak.
Liberatore, 20, was the Rays 1st round draft pick in 2018 (16th player overall) out of Mountain Ridge High School in Glendale, Ariz., and is ranked as the no. 3 prospect in the Rays system.
The 6-5, 200-pound Liberatore has compiled an 8-4 mark with a 2.59 ERA in 25 games (24 starts) in the minors, striking out 113 batters in 111.0 innings pitched, allowing just two home runs to go along with a 1.22 WHIP and .224 opponent’s batting average. Liberatore was 6-2 with a 3.10 ERA in 16 games (15 starts) for Bowling Green of the Midwest League (A) this past season.
Liberatore went 8-1 with a 0.93 ERA and 104 strikeouts as a senior at Mountain Ridge High School and was Arizona’s Gatorade Baseball Player of the Year. He was named a first-team Rawlings/Perfect Game All-American, and helped lead Mountain Ridge to the Class 6A state championship game. In 2017, Liberatore pitched 12 scoreless innings for USA Baseball’s 18U National Team and recorded the win in its gold medal game victory over Korea, and in the 2017 Under Armour All-America Game he threw scoreless 9th, 10th and 11th innings for the American League to get the win and earn Most Valuable Player honors.
The Rays selected Liberatore higher than any other high school pitcher in club history, and he became the fourth high school pitcher selected by the Rays in the first round, following Jason Standridge (No. 31) in 1997, Taylor Guerrieri (No. 24) in 2011 and Blake Snell (No. 52) in 2011.
Rodriguez, 19, a right-handed hitting catcher from Valencia, Venezuela, was signed by the Rays as an international free agent in July of 2017. The 6-0, 205-pound Rodriguez has produced a .338 batting average, six home runs and 40 RBI in his first two seasons as a professional. He batted .330 with 6 HR’s and 34 RBI in 51 games in the Dominican Summer League in 2018, ranking among the Rays minor league leaders in batting (3rd), slugging (.492, 6th) and on-base pct. (.384, 9th). In limited action with the GCL Rays, he batted .400 in 2019.
Today’s trade reduces the Cardinals current 40-man Major League roster to 38 players.
To track the status of the Cardinals’ 40-man roster as well as all players in the system by position and level, check out the Roster Matrix, always free and updated here at The Cardinal Nation. Also included is every player transaction across the full organization all year long.
For now, Liberatore and Rodriguez have been placed on our rosters at the levels at which they finished 2019. For the pitcher, that is Class-A Peoria. For the catcher, the Gulf Coast League.
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