Liberatore out to repay Cards' confidence

February 24th, 2021

JUPITER, Fla. -- As tuned into the 2020 postseason, he did so invested in seeing how his former Rays teammates fared in their run to a World Series appearance. He watched with a special interest as Randy Arozarena burst onto the scene with one of the most impressive rookie postseason performances in history, as Liberatore was part of the St. Louis-Tampa Bay trade that made Arozarena a Ray in the first place.

“I don't really feel like it ever crossed my mind like, 'Oh, that's the guy I got traded for, I have expectations now that I have to live up to,’” Liberatore said on Wednesday. “At the end of the day, my competition is myself. So I wish him all the best. I want to see him go out there and have success.”

It’s easy for Liberatore to feel this way, given that as a left-handed pitcher, he plays a completely different position from Arozarena. Like the popular adage goes, he’s focused on himself this Spring Training as he seeks a roster spot -- either from the get-go or later in the season.

“When it comes to what I need to take care of, I'm looking in the mirror every day and competing against that guy,” Liberatore said.

St. Louis' own “success” in the Liberatore-Arozarena trade -- still far too early to be determined -- may not even be dictated by Liberatore in the long term. Sure, he was the obvious, most important return in the deal, but sending an outfield prospect like Arozarena elsewhere was also a vote of confidence in the outfield crop the Cardinals organization had at the time.

The 2021 outfield makeup currently consists of Tyler O’Neill in left, Harrison Bader in center and top prospect Dylan Carlson in right, with Lane Thomas set to compete for either playing time a role as an impact bat off the bench. The Cardinals like their talent -- and depth -- in those four especially.

Even still, the obvious way for Liberatore to completely erode any lingering doubts about the trade would be to impress with his performance on the mound. It’s unclear where he fits into the Cardinals’ plans for 2021. He’s competing for a spot on the Opening Day roster, though the likelier odds are that he could be a midseason callup this year. 

Liberatore is still just 21, with an MLB ETA of 2022, according to MLB Pipeline. But he is highly regarded in the organization -- and is its highest-rated pitching prospect, at No. 3 overall -- two spots ahead of fellow southpaw Zack Thompson.

“As far as our young lefties, we're very excited,” president of baseball ops John Mozeliak said recently. “No season last year, so there are some things that are harder to gauge, but clearly, they're going to be given serious looks as they enter this camp. But when you're looking at the type of season that we're going to encounter, making sure that we have that depth at Triple-A is also very important. But clearly, these are two guys that we're very excited about, very high on, and I hope we get to see a lot of them in this camp.”

As Mozeliak alluded to, Liberatore could begin the year in the high Minors if he’s not on the Major League roster. The lack of a Minor League season in 2020 took away the chance for him to hit Double-A for the first time, but he took the lack of a season in stride, pitching against Yadier Molina and Paul DeJong as they rehabbed. In doing so he received first-hand insight from batters that he wouldn’t have gotten facing less-experienced opponents.

“I feel like the development and instruction that we got at the alternate site in Springfield last year was invaluable and instrumental in everybody's development,” Liberatore said. “I can face a guy and he gets a hit off me, and I go straight up to him and say, 'Hey, what did you see? Why did you swing at that? What happened?' And I feel like that was extremely beneficial.”