Cardinals boast elite triumvirate of top prospects

Gorman, Liberatore, Walker enter 2022 focused on preparation, development

March 8th, 2022

JUPITER, Fla. -- As he does every night before bed, Matthew Liberatore cleared his brain, slowed down his breathing and worked to get himself into an optimal state of mind. Once there, the 22-year-old left-hander visualized himself standing tall on the mound and throwing strike after strike on the first day of the Cardinals’ Minor League Spring Training.

Working to imagine the task ahead, Liberatore said, helps him be calm, confident and prepared when the moment arises -- as it did Monday in the Cardinals’ opening workout. That tactic also helped Liberatore dig his way out of a slow start at Triple-A Memphis last season, reestablishing himself as one of the top prospects in St. Louis' system (No. 2 per MLB Pipeline).

“I do a lot of visualization work, a lot of breath work, and trying to put myself into the settings that I want to see myself in in the future,” Liberatore said Monday after throwing a bullpen session. “I try to make it as realistic as possible -- sight, sound, taste and touch -- to give it a sense of realistic-ness. I do that every night before I go to bed for about 10 or 15 minutes. Then, when it comes time to live out that visualization, it’s like I have done it a thousand times already.”

Liberatore, like many of the 153 players in attendance at Monday’s first workout of Minor League Spring Training, is trying to visualize himself making the jump to the big leagues.

With no MLB players in camp, standout Minor League prospects -- such as Nolan Gorman, Jordan Walker and Liberatore -- have shifted into the spotlight. New Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol and bench coach Skip Schumaker moved about while observing workouts that were dampened by rain.

“It was more excitement for me than anything, just getting drills done and seeing the guys again,” said Walker, the team’s No. 3 prospect per MLB Pipeline. “It was good to see old pals and teammates. Getting back into the feel of things was great.”

Much of the intrigue with Gorman and Walker revolves around where they will play defensively. Both have unquestioned talent as power hitters, but there are question marks around where they fit best.

Gorman, 21, and the Cardinals’ top-rated prospect, hit 25 home runs between Double-A Springfield and Triple-A Memphis last season. Starved for a left-handed slugger, the club shifted Gorman from third to second base to clear a path for him to potentially start the season in St. Louis. To aid that transition, Gorman worked with infield coordinator José Oquendo several weeks before camp.

“He’s been by my side the whole way -- starting last year, when we decided to move over to second,” Gorman said of Oquendo. “Guys like Kolten Wong and [Tommy] Edman are working with him all the time. Kolten, when he went over to the Brewers, he told me, ‘Get with "Cheo," stay around him and you’ll learn a lot.’ It’s been good for me.”

Walker, the 21st pick in the 2020 MLB Draft, displayed similar power potential at Low-A Palm Beach (six home runs and 21 RBIs in 27 games) and High-A Peoria (eight home runs and 27 RBIs in 55 games). An elite athlete even at 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds, Walker worked this offseason to become more agile as a defender.

Liberatore, the left-hander who was aggressively pushed to Triple-A last season, didn’t find a level of comfort until midseason. Regarded as the nation’s top high school pitcher when he was picked 16th overall in the 2018 MLB Draft by Tampa Bay, Liberatore was unexpectedly rocked early with Memphis. He dropped his first three decisions and had a 5.48 ERA in four May starts. However, he righted the ship with a 3-1 record in June, a strong SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game showing and solid ERAs in August (2.84) and September (2.83).

“I think I learned a lot about myself last year,” said Liberatore, who ended up 9-9 overall. “I faced a good amount of failure in the first half of the season, and I got hit around a little bit, so I learned how to deal with that.”

Like Gorman -- his teammate and roommate at Memphis -- Liberatore has a shot of starting in St. Louis if he proves himself capable this spring. That’s the spot Cardinals fans are eager to see him reach, especially after the organization dealt the reigning American League Rookie of the Year, Randy Arozarena, for the lefty.

Like with his visualization practices before outings, Liberatore blocks out negative thoughts about pressure when contemplating his future.

“I don’t feel that pressure, whatsoever,” Liberatore said. “This is a long game [approach]. My time is coming and I trust my preparation.”