Cardinals name their 2021 Minor League Players, Pitcher of the Year

March 16th, 2022

JUPITER, Fla. -- Matthew Liberatore has never been one to lack confidence in anything that he’s done on the mound, so the 6-foot-4 lefty didn’t need a lofty ranking from MLB Pipeline to remind him that he is on a collision course with greatness at the Major League level.

“I feel like I’ve been Major League ready -- in my head, at least -- since the day I stepped on a high school mound,” said Liberatore, who is the No. 3 left-handed pitching prospect in baseball per MLB Pipeline. “I think you have to have that kind of confidence to compete at that level when you get there. Obviously, there are things that have to be worked on, but I like to view it as a continuous evolution and a never-ending process. If I make it to the Major Leagues tomorrow, every day spent there would be a day that I could learn and grow.”

Liberatore, who was named the Cardinals' 2021 Minor League Pitcher of the Year on Wednesday, headlines a stellar class of top Minor League prospects for the Cardinals. That group includes Juan Yepez and Jordan Walker, who were named the Cardinals' 2021 Minor League Co-Players of the Year on Wednesday. Yepez is MLB Pipeline’s No. 5-ranked first-base prospect, and Walker is the No. 3 third-base prospect in baseball.

Clearly, the future is bright for a Cardinals franchise already loaded with five Gold Glove winners and several All-Stars at the big-league level.

“It’s a very big honor, and I was pretty happy to hear about that [ranking],” said Walker, who split time last season between Single-A Palm Beach and High-A Peoria. “I’m pretty excited about it, but I know there’s more work to be done.”

Walker, the 21st overall pick in the 2020 Draft, has done work this spring alongside Cardinals superstars Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt. The '19-20 Gatorade Player of the Year in Georgia had 14 home runs and drove in 48 runs in 82 games in 2021. This spring, the 6-foot-5, 220-pound slugger has already shown off his massive power potential with several deep home runs into a driving wind.

“It’s been great,” Walker said. “I’ve gotten to talk to some of the guys, and that’s the biggest thing: Being able to learn from them, being able to learn from them about what they do, how they go about their work and their routines. It shows me what I really need to do to get myself to the big leagues because that’s my goal -- to get to the big leagues.”

Yepez, a 6-foot-1, 200-pounder, made it to the big leagues last season at a surprising time, and it made quite the impression on him. After hitting 27 home runs combined across stops at Double-A Springfield (five) and Triple-A Memphis (22), Yepez got a late-season call-up from the Cardinals, and he was on the active roster for the National League Wild Card Game at Dodger Stadium. That experience propelled Yepez into the offseason, and now, he is a candidate for the new DH position in the NL this season.

“For me, going [to Dodger Stadium] was an unbelievable experience because I’d never been invited to big league camp. So I was a total stranger there,” said the 24-year-old Yepez. “For sure, DH is an additional opportunity or an additional spot on the roster. At the end of the day, I just want to show them what I can do and win some ball games.”

Liberatore won his fair share of games last season following an 0-3 start in Memphis. Regarded as the nation’s top high school pitcher when he was selected with the 16th overall pick in the 2018 Draft by the Rays, Liberatore came to the Cardinals in ‘20 as part of a trade for Randy Arozarena and José Martínez and was unexpectedly hit hard early last season. However, he quickly righted the ship with a 3-1 record in June of 2021, a strong showing in the MLB Futures Game and solid ERAs in August (2.84) and September (2.83).

“It was nice that I was able to make adjustments mid-season to turn it around there at the halfway mark,” Liberatore said. “Then to be able to go home and have four months to really hone in on those things, it really gave me a lot of confidence coming into this spring. I’d say I can definitely carry that momentum into this spring and the season.”