Rays and Cardinals Go Back to the Well

Imagine, if you will, running the Rays. As you ponder your next fleecing acquisition, a lackey rushes in. “Sir! I’ve found a new undervalued talent to acquire!” Before you can even ask, he continues. “He’s on the Cardinals, and his name is Randy Ar–.”

“The Cardinals?!?” You thought you’d trained your lackeys better. “They probably won’t even take our phone calls. They hate us! They never forgave us for that time we sent them Revelation Cabrera.”

Génesis, sir. And I’ve got that angle covered. We’ve been working on our player operations department, as you know. And Kean, the new recruit we released to bring us back information from other clubs? He already has a mole.”

Of course, this isn’t how major league front offices work. They all have each other on speed dial. They go to the same conferences, hire people back and forth, and value players using roughly similar frameworks. One bad trade isn’t enough to jam up the works; teams understand that baseball players have unknowable and variable outcomes, that sometimes Tommy Pham is a key cog and sometimes he hurts his hip.

I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s talk details. Thursday night, the Rays sent Matthew Liberatore, Edgardo Rodriguez, and a Competitive Balance Round B pick to the Cardinals in exchange for Randy Arozarena, José Martínez, and a Competitive Balance Round A pick. That’s a lot of moving parts, so we’ll break them down one by one before talking about the overarching strategy behind it.

The bright shiny object in the trade is undoubtedly Liberatore. The 16th pick in the 2018 draft, Liberatore has the tools of a future ace. He sat around 93 mph on his sinker in Low-A this year, topping out at 97. He complements it with a curve, slider, and change. The curve is definitely the highlight here, a high-spin hammer he can command well. The slider shows promise too; he only picked it up his senior year of high school, and it’s developed quickly.

It’s too early to read much into his pitching line; he pitched all of 2019 at 19 years old and played in full-season ball for the first time. But he struck out nearly a batter an inning despite struggling at times with his command. Nothing he’s shown since being drafted changes the overall perception of a future top-end starter who fell unexpectedly on draft day.

Edgardo Rodriguez didn’t play much in 2019, as a minor injury kept him off the field, but what Kiley and Eric had to say in 2018 is still relevant. He’s big for catcher and might not stick there, but given his performance at the plate, it might not matter. He has everything you’d want in a young hitter — bat control, good timing, and an all-fields approach that lets him barrel up balls across the diamond. There’s a risk he ends up as a first-or-outfield type, but he might hit enough there to make that work. And if he sticks at catcher, he has a chance to be an elite bat for the position.

José Martínez is a quintessential bat without a position. He’s been a Statcast darling over his three-and-change years with the Cardinals, displaying tremendous contact skills and sneaky power. The book with Martínez is that he can hit but can’t field; rumors of the Cardinals sending him to an American League team to DH started essentially as soon as he made the majors.

The Rays, notably, play in the American League. But Martínez had an uneven 2019, and he’ll turn 32 in July; there’s risk in this profile. If you like Martínez, you like his all-fields approach and absolutely blistered line drives. He put up a shocking .418 xwOBA in his 2017 debut, the fifth-best mark in baseball.

It didn’t look like some system fluke, either: he was crushing the ball. He hit line drives 26.6% of the time (and is at 25.6% for his career), showing excellent bat control. He rarely chased, made good contact, and drew walks. He even showed newfound power, though his 6-foot-6 frame had always portended some pop.

But he hasn’t looked the same since his breakout 2017. The Cardinals spun him between first base and right in 2018 to get him 590 plate appearances, and while the bat still played, his power declined and his defense was atrocious. And his 2019 was curtailed by a shoulder injury; his numbers took a dip across the board. At the same time, teams started attacking him with sliders outside the zone, his biggest weakness at the plate.

At this point in his career, Martínez is a cypher. He might have lost the tremendous reflexes he needs to make his unconventional stance and swing work. He might be back to full strength after dealing with his shoulder injury, though lingering injuries are worrisome too. He might excel when DH’ing regularly. We simply don’t know.

Similarly, there’s a lot we don’t know about Randy Arozarena. Though 24, this was only his third season in pro ball. He looked too good for the minor leagues in both Double-A Springfield (116, PA, .309/.422/.515 good for a 162 wRC+) and Triple-A Memphis (283 PA, .358/.435/.593 and a 151 wRC+) after struggling in Triple-A in 2018.

The underlying metrics are also impressive; he pummeled the ball, hitting 49% of his batted balls 95 mph or harder. He’s still a groundball hitter, but there’s power there, and not just Memphis-related power; it might be more doubles than dingers, but his slashing approach and plus speed (Eric and Kiley have him as a 60) provide a good baseline for those doubles.

When it comes to plate discipline, Arozarena shows uncommon poise for a player with his raw tools. Guys who combine his speed and feel for contact often end up swinging too much, overly secure in their ability to hit everything. That’s not Arozarena; he ran a below-average 41% swing rate in the minors in 2019 while making contact on more than 80% of his swings. If you want a major league comparison for those numbers, it’s roughly Xander Bogaerts.

In the field, he’s something of a tweener. He could probably handle center in the majors, albeit only passably. With Kevin Kiermaier ensconced there, he’ll slot into one of the corners. He played left and right in roughly equal proportion in the minors, and his arm is above average.

Depending on how much you want to weight performance and how much you want to weight tools, your rankings on Arozarena could vary wildly. He’s not an enormous guy, and he was never considered a top prospect, though a lot of that stems from a complicated defection from Cuba that saw him sit out most of 2015 and 2016.

But the minor league numbers are absolutely there, and the physical tools are as well. There’s something of a Luis Robert vibe here — not in the raw power, because Arozarena is small and slight where Robert is strapping, but in the excellent statistical performance that outpaces their prospect rankings. Steamer sees Arozarena as a league average hitter right now, not a bad piece for someone who can play center credibly.

All things considered, Arozarena looks like a potential average regular, which is what a 50 on the scouting scale is supposed to represent. You could knock him to a 45+ to account for the risk of the unknown and I wouldn’t be too upset with you, but there’s upside there too; if his pace in Triple-A continues, he might have more power than we project him for, though that’s still very speculative.

As for the pick swap, it’s simply a sweetener for the Rays. Craig Edwards valued the difference between the picks at roughly $4 million, and moving $4 million of cash in a trade featuring under $2 million in player salaries might look sketchy, so a draft pick swap it is!

With the players sufficiently covered, it’s time to think about what it means for the teams, and I’ll admit that I’m a bit puzzled about the net effect of the Rays’ last two big trades. In essence, they’ve exchanged Tommy Pham for José Martínez, Hunter Renfroe, and Randy Arozarena, while swapping some minor league picks in the process. I happen to be higher on Liberatore and Jake Cronenworth than I am on Xavier Edwards, but your mileage may vary on that particular tradeoff.

That aside, the Rays turned one relatively expensive outfielder into three cost controlled outfielders who are major league pieces right now. The team could stash Arozarena in the minors to start 2020, but he’ll be 30 by the time he hits free agency, which means there’s not much reason to play service time games. The outfield picture now looks incredibly crowded: Austin Meadows, Hunter Renfroe, Kevin Kiermaier, and Arozarena, with Daniel Robertson, Joey Wendle, Yoshi Tsutsugo, and Martínez all capable of faking the outfield.

The DH spot might be even messier. Tsutsugo, Ji-Man Choi, and Martínez are all essentially DH’s. Nate Lowe needs time at first base, and he’s probably too good to keep in the minors. That doesn’t leave a lot of places to hide whoever doesn’t DH. Martínez is the only righty in that group, so he’ll receive his fair share of playing time, but it’s going to be a complicated juggling act.

And the Rays are bursting at the seams with talent as it is. They’ve repeatedly engaged in 40-man legerdemain in the past year to keep from butting up against limits, and they’ve done quite well in getting the roster down to a manageable number, but Martínez and Arozarena put them right back up to 40, and they’ll have to do the same dance again in a year.

If the Rays think Arozarena is a long-term starter for them, this deal makes total sense. Otherwise, I don’t quite understand speeding up the roster crunch. If it’s an issue of age match, where they want players who are good now rather than in three years, then why trade Pham for Edwards? The reason to do it is for talent, and so they must have a high opinion of Arozarena.

For the Cardinals, this move is easier to understand. Martínez is more valuable to an AL team than an NL team, and the Cardinals were an especially bad NL landing spot. Paul Goldschmidt has first base handled, and the outfield is bumper-to-bumper traffic. He would have a hard time getting enough plate appearances.

Arozarena would have faced the same battle. Harrison Bader and Dexter Fowler look like pretty good bets to hold down outfield spots next year, though Fowler is more of a part-timer at this point in his career. Tyler O’Neill is in the mix for playing time, and the team is high on Lane Thomas. Mike Shildt hasn’t been shy about putting Tommy Edman in the outfield to give Matt Carpenter infield playing time. Top prospect Dylan Carlson is knocking on the door, and there’s smoke around a reunion with Marcell Ozuna.

The point is, the Cardinals didn’t have room to play these guys. Their 20 years of success has starved the system of high draft picks, and Liberatore (along with childhood friend Nolan Gorman) represents a concerted effort to acquire riskier high-ceiling prospects. Talents like Liberatore aren’t available in trade very often, and the team is right to covet them.

There’s been talk that this might presage a deal for Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado, but that strikes me as excessively speculative. Yes, the Rockies have apparently made Arenado available, and yes, he’d be a good fit for St. Louis. But Liberatore would be a great fit for St. Louis too, and this trade makes sense without ulterior motives. Time will tell whether the Arenado rumors amount to anything, but you don’t need to believe them to like this trade.

I think I understand where both teams are coming from in this trade. The Rays saw a player they thought was undervalued by the market in Arozarena and went for him. Maybe they’re not as high as we are on Liberatore, but mainly they made an aggressive push for someone they wanted.

For the Cardinals, I like this trade more. Arozarena was wrongly undervalued for much of his minor league career — both by prospect lists and the team itself. Now that industry perception of him has risen, they’re cashing in on him, getting the top-end talent they crave in the process. Liberatore is easily within the top 100 prospects of baseball, perhaps in the top 50 depending on the source.

So would I do this trade if I were the Rays? Sure, I think so. They clearly like Arozarena, and he can make their team better right away. But would I do this trade if I were the Cardinals? In a heartbeat. Whatever my opinion of Arozarena, they clearly didn’t share it, or he would have gotten more opportunities in the majors. Given the chance to flip someone they don’t love for a top prospect, they seized the shot. The trade could work out for the Rays. But from a process standpoint, I’m with the Cardinals on this one.

Update: This article incorrectly referred to the general manager of the Tampa Bay Rays confusing a prospect with the 27th book of the New Testament. That book is Revelation, not Revelations. The copy has been updated to reflect this.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Rational Fan
4 years ago

“But the minor league numbers are absolutely there, and the physical tools are as well. There’s something of a Luis Robert vibe here — not in the raw power, because Arozarena is small and slight where Robert is strapping, but in the excellent statistical performance that outpaces their prospect rankings.”

What does this even mean? Robert is a top 3 prospect everywhere but Fangraphs. I don’t think Robert’s performance outpaces his rankings, unless you’re using the one service (FG) that greatly under ranks him compared to the consensus.

Robert also has a 3 WAR projection as a rookie while Aroz’s sit’s around 1.5 in a full season.

4 years ago
Reply to  Rational Fan

Robert’s horrible plate discipline means a) he has to get to every inch of his power and b) his average is going to be very BABIP dependent (and therefore, volatile). I don’t see him as can’t-miss at all.

Anthony Princeton
4 years ago
Reply to  dl80

What horrible plate discipline? Nobody said he was can’t miss, just that FG is the outlier on Robert. Most other sites had Robert as a top 5 prospect at mid season of 2019.

Rational Fan
4 years ago
Reply to  dl80

1. Where did I ever say he was a can’t miss? I said comparing a top 3 ranked prospect in baseball to a guy who was 18th in the Cards system last year makes little sense.
2. The only publication that rates Robert lower than his production is FG’s.
3. 22 year old kids get better at baseball sometimes.
4. What motivation did Robert have to change his approach last year?

And lastly, I wasn’t critical of FG’s but I did expect the endless down votes – at least I actually read the articles before posting. The only reason he was compared to Robert is because they’re both Cuban – besides that, their profiles are nothing alike, and Robert is obviously a much bigger prospect in the grand scheme of things.

Travis Lmember
4 years ago
Reply to  Rational Fan

The downvotes are probably because of the first sentence. This is the internet, where people assume a negative tone wherever they can. “What does this even mean” comes across as dismissive, which is a shame because the rest of your comment is spot on.

Rational Fan
4 years ago
Reply to  dl80

I also think his “horrible plate discipline” that you cite is integrated into his 3 WAR projection as a 22 year old Rookie.

4 years ago
Reply to  dl80

Nobody called him a can’t miss that I see. Agreed that he isn’t a can’t miss, but as far as I can tell everyone agrees on that point.

Anthony Princeton
4 years ago
Reply to  Rational Fan

Robert is also 2.5 years younger than Arozarena. So Robert is bigger, stronger, faster, a better fielder, better arm and is more than 2 years younger. Outside of being RH, OF’s from Cuba that produced in the minors I don’t see the connection either.

4 years ago
Reply to  Rational Fan

He wasn’t great in 2018. Maybe that is what he is referring to. I am sure the sentence is more about the other guy and not really Robert.