photo: Matthew Liberatore
Preface from the editor – Change is good
We here at The Cardinal Nation take pride in our process of ranking St. Louis Cardinals prospects, now 15 years tested. It is an ongoing activity, not a once- or twice-per-year effort, with one example being our monthly in-season re-ranking of the entire top 50, with explanations why. Every day, there is more to learn and consider.
Our new 2020 Cardinals Top 50 has been unveiled, but there is a new event. As of Thursday, January 9, number seven prospect Randy Arozarena is gone, replaced by left-handed pitcher Matthew Liberatore, acquired from Tampa Bay.
This is not a problem for us, but instead an opportunity to look at an exciting new prospect, both on his own merits as well as in the broader context of the Cardinals system. All the work shared before provides that backdrop and retains just as much value as when it was published.
Today, Derek Shore begins with a comparison between Liberatore and another first round-drafted pitcher, Zack Thompson. Making this even more interesting is that the new Cardinals’ fellow lefty Thompson came in at no. 6 in our initial 2020 rankings, just one spot ahead of Arozarena.
After comparing the two hurlers, Derek explains where Liberatore lands in our updated 2020 top 50. As a result, several players will slide down one spot until no. 7 is re-filled, while those prospects at no. 8 and beyond remain the same as before.
And if the Cardinals make further deals affecting prospects, we will be back with more analysis. That is what we love to do – and hopefully what you expect from us. Thank you for reading!
– Brian Walton
The Cardinals struck a blockbuster deal with the Rays on Thursday night, trading from their excess of outfielders to acquire one of the best young lefthanders in the minors, who immediately becomes the organization’s top pitching prospect.
Liberatore will be ranked ahead of the Cardinals’ 2019 first round pick Zack Thompson, who initially was No. 6 in TCN’s Top 50 prospect rankings for 2020.
Before announcing where I will rank Liberatore, I’m going to compare and contrast the two talented southpaws that have similar pitch offerings yet some differences.
According to scouts, both have four pitches. Liberatore and Thompson throw a fastball, curveball, changeup and slider.
Liberatore’s fastball velocity was down from his draft year, when he was throwing consistently in the mid-90s, but he is still sitting comfortably at 90-95 and showed he could reach 96-97 on occasion.
His fastball receives 55 grades among scouts, but it has a chance to grow into a plus pitch with more maturity.
In his final season at Kentucky as a junior, Thompson featured one of the best swing-and-miss rates among 2019 college pitchers in part because of his 91-92 mph fastball that can reach 94 when he needs it.
Thompson also earns 55 grades for his heater, with a few scouts willing to call it a true plus pitch.
And now it’s time to dissect the differences. Despite throwing the same secondary offerings, the quality of those pitches are not the same.
The newest Cardinal is two years younger and his secondary stuff is extremely advanced for his age. Liberatore mixes his fastball with a potentially plus curveball that is above-average right now. It is the kind of curve that has a chance to be a lefty hammer, generating easy swing-and-misses.
Liberatore’s changeup and slider are both average offerings at the moment, but project to be above-average with continued growth as well. That speaks volumes as Liberatore just added the slider to his arsenal in 2019.
While Thompson’s secondary stuff doesn’t get as much praise by scouts, his 84-85 mph slider is a high-spin rate, above-average pitch and has power to it, although it gets loopier and slower at times.
His slower mid-70s curveball is less consistent, ranging anywhere from fringe-average to above-average depending on the day. Thompson doesn’t throw his changeup all that often, but when he does, it is an average pitch.
Thompson also has more durability concerns than Liberatore, although the latter did miss some time this past summer due to back spasms.
The reason I give Liberatore the recognition of being the Cardinals top pitching prospect is because he throws all his pitches for strikes, commands the ball to both sides of the plate and I think has more of a natural feel to pitching than Thompson.
Liberatore has the size (6-foot-5, 200 pounds), delivery and command to be a mid-rotation starter at least, with many thinking he could be a No. 2 starter in the majors.
Thompson’s delivery is sold and he has made significant strides with his slider, making it average even with shaky command at times. Scouts like him as a No. 4 starter, but it is not a sure-bet as Liberatore.
Thompson’s health and command will be something to watch in his first full season at Double-A Springfield.
The revised prospect rankings
I have Liberatore pegged as the Cardinals No. 3 overall prospect and top pitcher behind hitters Dylan Carlson and Nolan Gorman. He was the No. 3 prospect in the loaded Tampa Bay farm system, the best in the minors as of August 14, 2019, per Baseball America.
In fact, there can be debate over whether Liberatore should rank ahead of Gorman at No. 2, but going into 2020, he is The Cardinal Nation’s No. 3 prospect.
Assuming he is not flipped in another trade – popular speculation but with no apparent basis – Liberatore’s most likely assignment is High-A Palm Beach to open this upcoming season. I think Springfield shouldn’t be out of the question if there is a need for another rotation arm. Receiving a quick promotion if all goes well is another formula followed by the organization previously.
Brian Walton’s wrap-up
There you have it. Liberatore becomes our new no. 3 prospect, with the following associated adjustments.
- Elehuris Montero from no. 3 to no. 4
- Andrew Knizner from no. 4 to no. 5
- Ivan Herrera from no. 5 to no. 6
- Thompson from no. 6 to no. 7, replacing Arozarena
As a reminder, the full TCN 2020 top 50 can be seen here.
I assign Liberatore a scouting grade of “6.5 medium”. That puts his ceiling in between an upper-to-mid rotation starting pitcher and an All-Star, with moderate work still ahead to achieve it.
The only other prospect in the system with a grade as high is Carlson, at “6.5 low”.
Liberatore’s no. 3 ranking is the best for a Cardinals lefty since Marco Gonzales placed no. 1 in 2015 and no. 3 the next year.
He and Thompson ranking in the top 10 is our first pair of lefties that high since 2014 when Rob Kaminsky was no. 5 and Gonzales was no. 6. Even then, right-hander Carlos Martinez was on top.
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