You know we’re starved for Cardinals news when a trade in which the most prominent incoming player is a 20-year-old Low-A ball pitcher approaches break-the-internet level excitement. But Matthew Liberatore is no ordinary Low-A pitcher, so that’s exactly what happened Thursday when the Cardinals dealt two major leaguers and moved down in next year’s MLB Draft just to get him.
Outfielders Jose Martinez and Randy Arozarena are Cardinals no longer, as both were shipped off to Tampa Bay in the trade, which was announced Thursday night after hours of social media speculation. The Cardinals also got 19-year-old catcher Edgardo Rodriguez in the deal.
The first trade involving the Cardinals this offseason, Thursday’s deal commanded attention as to the implications it could have for the 2020 roster and invited speculation as to where the Cardinals could go from here. Let’s take a look at some of the most pressing questions inspired by Thursday’s activity in Cardinals nation:
Who is this Liberatore guy and why should I care?
While Matthew Liberatore isn’t someone you should expect to have an immediate impact on the Cardinals at the MLB level, you’re probably going to want to keep an eye on his development.
Here’s some context: You know Nolan Gorman? The Cardinals’ top pick from the 2018 draft, selected No. 18 in the first round? The 19-year-old slugger has risen to No. 38 on MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 prospects list, but he actually had a good friend and former youth league teammate drafted two spots ahead of him that year, at No. 16 overall.
You guessed it. Matthew Liberatore.
So if you’re excited about Gorman, go ahead and add Liberatore’s name to your list of prospects to follow. MLB Pipeline has Liberatore ranked narrowly behind Gorman at No. 41, so it’ll be fun to watch these two jockey for position on various prospect lists as they progress through the minors.
As for what makes Liberatore so intriguing, it starts with his physical makeup. Listed at 6’5” and 200 pounds, this guy looks like a workhorse. He’s also left-handed, ranked as the No. 4 southpaw pitching prospect by MLB Pipeline.
Liberatore throws a fastball that touches 95 mph, complemented by his developing offspeed arsenal, which includes a curveball, slider and changeup. He had solid numbers in 78.1 innings in Low-A last season (6-2, 3.10 ERA) and will look to continue paving a path toward the majors this season. At whatever level he begins his 2020 campaign, Liberatore should immediately vault to a position near the top of the Cardinals prospect rankings.
How does the trade with the Rays impact the Cardinals 40-man roster?
Another element of Thursday’s move that works in favor of the Cardinals is the flexibility it brings to the club’s 40-man roster. While Jose Martinez and Randy Arozarena both occupied spots on the 40-man, neither player coming over to St. Louis from Tampa Bay in the trade will do so. Liberatore, who turned 20 years old in November, will likely open the season at one of the lower rungs of the minors (he pitched at Low-A ball in 2019). Edgardo Rodriguez is a teenage catching prospect; he’s far off the radar, for now.
So the Cardinals 40-man roster now stands at 38. This gives the team some wiggle room as it explores additional acquisitions leading up to the season. Though a full 40-man roster doesn’t necessarily preclude trades or free agent signings from happening—one way or another, teams can find room for players they’re intent on adding—it often comes at the cost of designating a player for assignment and potentially losing them for nothing in return.
So what will the Cardinals do with the two empty roster spots?
There’s no rule dictating you have to fill your 40-man. The Cardinals will proceed with their offseason as normal, but with the knowledge that there won’t be so many puzzle pieces to move around if another deal or signing does present itself.
Eventually, the backup catcher to Yadier Molina will require one of the spots (unless the team goes with Andrew Knizner, who is already on the 40-man, for that role), but usually that move isn’t made until later in the spring. Last year, the Cardinals signed Matt Wieters to a minor-league contract in the middle of spring training, and added him to the roster just before the regular season began. The team could explore the veteran backup catching market in a similar fashion this spring, or with the recently discovered roster space, the Cardinals could commit to a backup catcher on an MLB deal upfront if they have a specific target in mind who commands a guaranteed deal. They’re usually not in any rush to do the latter.
Any hypothetical trade for Nolan Arenado—a subject we’ll touch on later in this piece—would likely require trading players from the 40-man roster anyway, so it’s not like the 40-man spatial aspect of Thursday’s move impacts a potential pursuit of the Rockies third baseman. One of the open spots could conceivably go to Marcell Ozuna—which is another topic we’ll broach in just a bit.
Unless another move emerges, the team will be content to let its roster stand at 38 for the time being.
The Cardinals are trying to win, right? Doesn’t trading players from the MLB roster for minor leaguers make the current team worse?
The most common complaint I read Thursday regarding the Cardinals’ trade was that moving MLB talent for players not expected to impact the roster in 2020 signals mixed messaging from the team. To some, it felt like a rebuilding move. How does this trade help the Cardinals win now?
Well, it doesn’t. Not directly, anyway. But before making this trade, the Cardinals had Martinez, Arozarena, Harrison Bader, Dexter Fowler, Lane Thomas, Tyler O’Neill, Dylan Carlson and Justin Williams all worthy of consideration for outfield playing time in 2020. That’s eight guys for three spots, before factoring in the potential for Marcell Ozuna to re-enter the mix. Something had to give, so John Mozeliak dealt from a strength to acquire a highly-rated pitching prospect. It was a savvy allocation of resources.
I’m not suggesting the Cardinals won’t miss Martinez’s infectious energy—because they will. And sure, Arozarena could someday prove he’s the best player from the above group. At his Hall of Fame induction, we’ll complain that the Cardinals traded away the wrong twenty-something outfielder back in January 2020. But these two players weren’t likely slated for major roles this season, anyway, and the Cardinals have plenty of similarly capable players eager to pick up the slack.
So while the 2020 Cardinals didn’t necessarily take a big leap forward with this move, I don’t see how they took any sort of step back, either.
In the press release announcing the trade, Mozeliak touted the move as one that would clear a path for increased opportunity for players like Lane Thomas and Tyler O’Neill. The extent to which that thought becomes a reality depends on how our next burning question plays out.
Speaking of subtracting from the MLB roster, don’t the Cardinals still need a clean-up hitter? Is an Ozuna reunion still an option?
For pretty much the entire last year, I’ve been vocal in my belief that Marcell Ozuna’s time with the Cardinals would come to an end following the 2019 season. The perfunctory manner in which the team has answered questions regarding their conversations with Ozuna’s representation has suggested merely token interest in the 29-year-old left fielder. Even with Thursday’s trade clearing part of the logjam, the Cardinals still hold a handful of young outfielders looking to make their mark in St. Louis in 2020.
That explains why the Cardinals would be less than motivated to offer Ozuna—whose performance in two years with St. Louis never quite lived up to the high bar set by his 2017 campaign in Miami—the kind of multi-year contract he seeks in free agency. Ozuna wants to stay with the Cardinals. He also, presumably, wants long-term contractual security.
It’s beginning to look like he won’t end up with both. It’s possible he gets neither.
As January progresses with Ozuna yet unsigned, the likelihood increases that he’s left without a chair—or at least, without a comfortable one—when the music stops. The Cardinals do like Ozuna, but because of their emergent outfield depth, the team has felt comfortable slow-playing his market. Reportedly, the Texas Rangers are still interested in Ozuna’s services, but if that interest dries up, the Cardinals could be left standing with the pillow to soften Ozuna’s harsh descent from lofty free-agent desires.
I’ve always said the Cardinals would let Ozuna walk after 2019. I just didn’t realize he might not have anywhere else to go. If that’s the case, a reunion on a one-year deal could make sense.
But what about Arenado? That’s who the Cardinals really need! Could they offer this Liberatore fella to Colorado as a trade chip for Arenado?
Though the delayed three-team trade is longtime favorite tactic of mine when it comes to fantasy baseball—I don’t want anybody you have, but if you can go get so-and-so for me from Zachary’s team, I think we might have a deal!—I’m not sure how realistic it is for real-life baseball trade negotiations.
Though there was some scuttlebutt in the wake of the Cardinals move for Liberatore that the young lefty might fit nicely headlining an offer to the Rockies for Nolan Arenado, that’s a maneuver that feels easier-tweeted-than-done. Obviously, I can see where turning two lesser commodities into the centerpiece that helps land one of baseball’s best players would be an attractive concept to the Cardinals and their fans. More times than not, though, these moves aren’t made as an opening act for an elaborate master plan yet to be revealed. Sometimes a trade is just a trade.
While it’s still conceivable the Cardinals would go get Arenado this winter (I’ll speculatively handicap it at about a 12% chance), doing so would require a delicate balance of numerous complicated factors on both sides of the equation to push such a deal across the finish line.
Copyright 2020 KMOV (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved.