photo: Matthew Liberatore (Brian Walton/The Cardinal Nation)
Late Friday afternoon, Mike Shildt was one of the final group of Major League Baseball managers to meet with media members during a week in which they separately took questions and provided answers via Zoom. The Cardinals’ skipper connected from his winter vacation quarters on St. Simons Island in Georgia and graciously extended his scheduled 30 minutes to 50. As usual, his replies were thorough and thoughtful.
I had the opportunity to ask Shildt about the players who most impressed in the Springfield alternate camp, which turned out to be the major player development opportunity for the organization in 2020.
After he praised the staff who ran the activities – from Jose Oquendo to Tim Leveque, Russ Steinhorn, Roberto Espinoza, Chris Swauger, Joey Hawkins and the medical staff – the manager also thanked the players themselves for getting the most out of the somewhat restricted opportunities presented them.
After noting the feedback was “super-positive on all the guys.” Shildt singled out two standouts, beginning with left-handed pitcher Matthew Liberatore.
“There were a lot of real favorable reports on Matthew Liberatore from both sides of the ball,” the manager said. “Timmy (minor league pitching coordinator Leveque) was very complimentary. (Camp coordinator Jose) Oquendo also from a competitive standpoint – make up, how he went about it, how he pitched, throwing in. He was very complimentary also.”
Next up was Liberatore’s since-childhood friend, third baseman Nolan Gorman.
“Nolan Gorman impressed people by the way he was going about it, improving defensively, taking at bats,” Shildt continued. “So those were two positives. I felt like those guys took advantage of their opportunities down there. Those are probably the two that at least initially come to mind.”
Not wanting to leave out others, the manager added a few more names before reinforcing that Liberatore and Gorman were the top two standouts.
“We had some up and down guys – Austin Dean and guys like that – that did well when they were there and went about their business,” Shildt said. “John Nogowski, guys like that. Zack Thompson also did a nice job as well.”
A number of observers, this writer among them, are keenly interested in when Liberatore and Gorman reach St. Louis. The implications for 2022 are huge if the two can establish a major league base this coming season.
It is quite possible. In fact, Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak recently said he would not be surprised if the lefty pitches for the Cardinals at some point in 2021.
Before the session with almost four dozen media members closed, I was able to squeeze in a follow up question regarding what may be ahead for the duo in 2021. Given neither has played an official game at either Double-A and Triple-A, but did have the summer of 2020 in alternate camp, how might their readiness to contribute at the major league level in 2021 be assessed?
“You know, Brian, I will defer to our really good player development group – Mr. LaRocque (farm director Gary), Mo and the group – to weigh in on that,” Shildt replied.
The manager also acknowledged that he and his coaches will have the next major opportunity to evaluate the pair ahead.
“Those guys will clearly be in whatever version of big league camp we have again and have real opportunities again in that camp,” he said. “So we will have an evaluation from the big league staff as well. So it is really just about the body of work when they go back, and ultimately, it comes down to their consistency.”
“They are clearly two talented guys,” Shildt continued. “And they’ve got the ability to play in the big leagues now. We just don’t have the room and they are not quite ready. That determination will be made by people that are really good at what they do in the organization.”
Next, the manager praised how the duo go about their work and leverage their learnings, uttering the name of the Cardinals’ best young player, the staff ace.
“And they are both very dedicated to having good off-seasons and being good players,” Shildt said. “So similar to what I have expressed with a Jack Flaherty. I am not comparing anyone to Jack – only in how he got to the big leagues so quickly and was able to excel, as Jack took advantage of the experiences and he emotionally and work ethic matched his ability, which is pretty enormous.”
For the record, at the age of 21, Flaherty entered 2017 spring training with not an inning pitched at Double-A or higher on his resume. He then shot through Springfield and Memphis before making his big league debut with St. Louis on September 1, 2017. The final month, he made six appearances. Including five starts for the Cardinals.
While it will not be his call, the manager believes that Liberatore and Gorman can accelerate their arrival in the majors as Flaherty did before them.
“I say all that… I think those guys could get there quicker than most. But it is really about how consistent they are with their games. That consistency level is what is going to lead them to be able to be at the big league level,” he concluded.
If it transpires that Liberatore and Gorman can drop their respective anchors in St. Louis before the 2021 season is out, two big questions heading into the 2022 season could have at least partial answers. But as Shildt made clear multiple times, it will ultimately be up to the players and how they perform in the season just ahead.
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