Bernie: After Making a Smart Trade, Do The Cardinals Have Another Card To Play?

Interesting trade between Tampa Bay and St. Louis. Very interesting. And the deal comes with multiple layers.

To recap:

The Rays traded their top their top left-handed pitching prospect, Matthew Liberatore, Class A minor-league catcher Edgardo Rodriguez to the Cardinals for young outfielder Randy Arozarena and designated hitter Jose Martinez.

The trade partners also swapped compensation-round picks in the next MLB draft, with the Rays receiving the No. 38 overall slot from the Cardinals and the Cards getting No. 66 overall from the Rays.

There’s a wide swath of ground to cover here, so let’s get to it…

Here’s why this deal makes a lot of sense for the Cardinals:

1-Among the four individuals that were relocated in this deal, the Cardinals landed the talent with the highest ceiling. Liberatore only 20, has immense upside.

Don’t take it from me. The independent analysts placed Liberatore in the upper tier in their most recent rankings of the Top 100 Major League prospects…

Liberatore is rated 31st overall by Baseball America, 37th by Baseball Prospectus and 41st by MLB Pipeline. FanGraphs isn’t as enthusiastic, but still ranks Liberatore 63rd overall.

The updated Pipeline lists Liberatore as the Cardinals’ No. 3 prospect behind outfielder Dylan Carlson and third baseman Nolan Gorman. It also means that Liberatore is immediately recognized as the No. 1 St. Louis pitching prospect.

Here’s Tommy Rancel of The Athletic:

“Liberatore was one of the best — if not the best — prep arms in the 2018 draft. It was a tremendous amount of fortune that fell upon the Rays when they selected him 16th overall. He made his pro debut later that summer before receiving a full-season assignment in 2019. As a 19-year-old in the Midwest League, where most players are two or three years older, he posted a 3.10 ERA in 78 1/3 innings. He struck out 76 batters to 31 walks.

“A long lefty, Liberatore lives in the low 90s and sports a full assortment of secondary options. He has a curveball and changeup that project to be above average along with a harder breaking ball in the tuck. Along with that arsenal comes guided precision. When all is said and done, he should have plus control that borders on command. It is top-of-the-rotation upside if everything pans out.”

2-Under chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. and head of baseball ops John Mozeliak, the Cardinals have built, and consistently maintained, a foundation that’s girded with starting pitching. It has always been their top priority, so no one should be surprised by this move.

Problem is, the STL pitching-prospect supply has thinned over the last couple of years because of promotions (Jack Flaherty, Dakota Hudson), injuries (Alex Reyes), and trades that sent Marco Gonzales, Luke Weaver, Zac Gallen and Sandy Alcantara to other teams.

The Cardinals have some system arms that already have contributed at the MLB level and figure to do so again, including Austin Gomber, Daniel Ponce de Leon, and Genesis Cabrera. Lefty Zack Thompson — the No. 19 overall MLB draft pick last year — is on the rise. And Cabrera is an intriguing raw talent that could be an asset in the bullpen. Jake Woodford continues to struggle with control problems, and it’s hard to say if he’ll turn into a big-league rotation piece.

The Cardinals needed an infusion of elite-prospect pitching. Liberatore fills that void.

3-Why is this important? For an organization that depends on starting pitching as the basis of its core philosophy, the Cardinals are smart to reinforce an area of strength. They can’t afford a shortfall.

It’s extremely expensive to invest in established big-league starting pitching. So far this offseason the top 12 free-agent starters signed contracts for a combined total of $1.05 billion dollars. It’s essential to draft and develop — or otherwise acquire — young starting-pitching talent and channel it to St. Louis.

Flaherty, 24, is an ascending ace. And though it’s still four seasons away, he can become a free agent before the 2024 campaign. Presuming that Flaherty stays on track and avoids a damaging injury that impacts his career, this dude will be in line for a massive contract.

That’s another reason for the Cardinals to prioritize the development of young, cost-controlled starting pitching.

4-The Cardinals are reducing their outfield population. It’s still crowded, yes. But three outfielders have been cleared out in recent weeks: Adolis Garcia (to Texas) and now Arozarena and Martinez.

I’m not crazy about the decision to trade Arozarena. But Tampa Bay coveted him … which should cause some anxiety … because Tampa Bay is especially astute in making personnel evaluations. As for Liberatore, the Rays were high on him — but had the good fortune to be able to deal from a surplus to secure the necessary platoon DH (Martinez) and a potential starter (Arozarena.)

We shouldn’t overlook the main point here: right or wrong, the Cardinals clearly rated Arozarena beneath some of their other outfield prospects. Late last summer he was promoted to the big club … and sat … and sat … and sat.

The Cardinals’ baseball people weren’t entirely sold on Arozarena. In time we’ll know if they were foolish or wise.

But if Arozarena wasn’t going to receive a full opportunity to start or play extensively for the Cardinals then it made him an obvious trade candidate — right? Of course.

Obviously, we don’t have to endorse that assessment. But that’s the front-office view. And if Mozeliak and his aides are wrong, and Arozarena becomes a star for the Rays, the Cardinals will be in line for substantial ridicule. (Well, at least until Liberatore emerges as a No. 2 starter in the St. Louis rotation… if, in fact, that happens.)

Now, let’s turn our attention to a couple of theories…

THEORY: by subtracting three outfielders the Cardinals are more likely to increase their offer to free-agent left fielder Marcell Ozuna and bring him back to St. Louis.

I’m not sure about that. The Cardinals still have a bunch of outfielders including Dexter Fowler, Harrison Bader, Tommy Edman, Lane Thomas, Tyler O’Neill, Justin Williams … and, of course, top-prospect Dylan Carlson. When Carlson is promoted to St. Louis, he’ll be here to stay.

If the Cardinals really wanted Ozuna back, it would have happened already. It’s not as if the Cardinals were keeping their distance from Ozuna because they had big plans for Jose Martinez and Randy Arozarena in left field,

THEORY: Liberatore’s career as a Cardinal will end before it begins; he was acquired to be a big part of a trade between St. Louis and Colorado for Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado.

  • If you think this is entirely possible — if not probable — then please answer the following questions:
  • Do we know, for a fact, that the Rockies are determined to trade Arenado?
  • If so, do we know Colorado’s list of demands required before sending Arenado to St. Louis?
  • Arenado, 28, will turn 29 in April. He has seven years and $234 million remaining on an eight-year, $260 million deal. He’ll be 35 in the final year of his contract. Are you concerned about an age-related decline?
  • About the contract: Arenado can opt out and become a free agent after two seasons. A team that acquires Arenado could lose Arenado after the 2021 season. How much are you willing to give up in a trade for what could be a two-year rental?
  • Sure, Arenado could decide to stay put and finish his contract. No worries, right? Well … he’ll be paid an average of $33.4 million per season through 2026. And if Arenado’s performance plummets through the years, would you then flip-flop and go full blast on the Cardinals for engaging in such risky business?
  • During his MLB career, Arenado has thrived in his home setting at Coors Field, with a slugging percentage of .615 and an OPS of .995. Away from Coors Field, Arenado has slugged .476 with a .799 OPS. Hey, that’s still a fine performance away from Coors. But … in terms of offense, the home-road disparity in Arenado’s can be described this way: at Coors, Arenado is Mike Trout (career .1000 OPS.) Away from Coors, Arenado is Sixto Lezcano. (Trout has a career OPS of around .1000. Lezcano’s career OPS was .799.) You OK with having the Sixto Lezcano hitter’s version of Arenado?
  • Considering DeWitt’s track record for investing in huge player contracts — he doesn’t — then what makes you think he’d risk $234 million on Arenado?
  • And if DeWitt believes deeply in the philosophy of drafting-developing waves of young pitching, then why would he want to immediately flip Liberatore, an attractive new addition?

Finally …

Here’s my only problem with the Cardinals on the Liberatore trade: it does nothing to improve the team for 2020. And though Jose Martinez was overrated by many Cardinals fans, he was a helpful presence off the bench, having posted a .322 batting and .866 OPS as a pinch-hitter here. So in that context, the Cards offense is just a little weaker now.

But it’s fine to make this trade as long as the Cardinals make another move or two in an attempt to boost their sagging offense for 2020. It isn’t one or the other; they can trade from surplus and make a trade for a promising pitching prospect like Liberatore. And they can make an additional move to put some muscle in the lineup … without including Liberatore. Or by including Liberatore.

Whatever.

I’m not much of a Fantasy GM.

Thanks for reading … and have a swell weekend.

–Bernie