At the time, it seemed like a curious trade, given the parties and players involved. It was the kind of deal that most felt would take years to truly evaluate. On Jan. 9, 2020, this crossed the transaction wire.
• St. Louis Cardinals traded 1B José Martínez, LF Randy Arozarena and Future Considerations to Tampa Bay Rays for LHP Matthew Liberatore, C Edgardo Rodriguez and Future Considerations.
Little did anyone know that this trade would provide the spark that would catapult the Rays to the World Series for the first time since 2008 and the second time in franchise history.
Everyone has witnessed what Arozarena has done since he was called up to the big leagues on Aug. 30, a debut delayed because of positive COVID-19 tests. Seven homers in 64 at-bats during the regular season (1.022 OPS), followed by what will surely be looked at as a historic postseason run: Seven more home runs, including four in the American League Championship Series to earn him MVP honors.
People have gotten to know who Randy Arozarena is, but how he ended up being traded in the first place is a story of two teams finding a fit with each other, being willing to go outside their usual comfort zone in terms of the types of trades they usually make, communication both within the Rays organization and externally and tireless work by the ever-busy Rays’ professional scouting department.
Building a winner via trade
Arozarena’s ascent to postseason star might be a surprise, but the fact the Rays traded for a player helping this postseason shouldn’t be a shock to anyone. A total of 16 of the projected 28-man World Series roster came to the Rays via trade/Rule 5 Draft, and they had more trade acquisitions on their roster than any of the four teams that were in the League Championship Series this season.
“It’s what we do,” Rays pro scouting director Kevin Ibach said. “It’s our DNA.”
It’s not a new phenomenon. The impact trades have made on this current version of the Rays goes back to when David Price was sent to Detroit in July 2014 and Tampa Bay got an 18-year-old A-ball shortstop by the name of Willy Adames as part of the return. The Chris Archer trade netted Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows. Other deals brought in players like Mike Zunino and Ji-Man Choi, Manuel Margot, Hunter Renfroe and many more.
There’s a culture that runs throughout the organization as a result of this overall philosophy. Scouts know that their work is valued, that it matters, and that it’s used to help build a winner.
“Everyone who works in our pro scouting department realizes we work for an organization that is frequently trading, that we’re always on the hunt for talent,” Ibach said. “For as many nights as you spend away from your family, in hotels, in small cities in Appalachia you discover for the first time, there’s gratification because there’s an opportunity to not only identify a player, but acquire a player. Our scouts know when they’re out on the road evaluating players, their opinions aren’t just being heard, they’re being acted on.
“It’s an opportunity to really impact the organization and have a voice. Gratifying is a really good word: the enjoyment the scouts take from seeing us in the postseason and make the World Series and knowing they contributed.”
Identifying a need and a partner
In 2019, the Rays made the postseason, losing in the AL Division Series. They did so with key contributions from Tommy Pham and Avisaíl Garcia, two right-handed-hitting outfielders. But Pham was traded to the Padres and Garcia signed a free-agent deal with the Brewers during the offseason, so the Rays knew they needed to find some right-handed hitters, particularly outfielders, to continue winning in the AL East.
They had gotten Renfroe from the Padres in the Pham deal, giving them a younger player with more years of control. In February, they added Margot. In between the December and February trades are when they worked out the deal with the Cardinals to bring in Arozarena.
“St. Louis had a glut of right-handed-hitting outfielders,” Ibach said. “That led to expedited negotiations because we saw a good fit on both sides.
“Many of us talk to other teams on a regular basis and maintain that communication. It’s like online dating: If you don’t go back and forth in talking, you won’t get to that first date. In baseball, you can’t just jump to that finish line for a trade. I think we do a good job at that, spitballing with other teams, is there a match here somewhere? That’s how a lot of these conversations start.”
Just because it went quickly doesn’t mean it was easy. The cost to bring in Arozarena (as well as veteran infielder Jose Martínez and a swap of Competitive Balance Round picks to “trade up” in the Draft) was steep: 2018 first-round pick Liberatore (and Minor League catcher Rodriguez). This was not the typical “Rays way” of deal-making, but it became a debate over timeline.
“We won a bunch of ballgames with a very young core in 2019,” Ibach said. “The timeline got accelerated quickly. It came down to, ‘Are we willing to part with someone we value highly to acquire someone who can impact our big league team a little sooner?’”
Knowing that Liberatore was a few years away, especially given the Rays’ tendency to be slow in moving young pitching through their system, and feeling that Arozarena would at least contribute in some fashion in 2020 with the chance to eventually be an impact hitter, made the Rays' braintrust comfortable in going against their norms and making the deal. Much of that comfort came from knowing the player they were getting from St. Louis very well.
A process that began in 2017
Teams have scores of trade conversations at the Winter Meetings each year. Most don’t end up coming to fruition. At the Meetings in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., in 2017, the Rays and Cardinals had one of those talks and almost pulled the trigger on a multiplayer blockbuster trade, though neither Ibach nor anyone else with either team would divulge the principals who would have been involved. One thing for certain was that Arozarena would have been a smaller piece in that deal had it gone through.
“We’ve done this several times in other trades,” Ibach said. “We identify a player, maybe earlier in his career and for some reason, we don’t line up with that team at that time. It’s an opportunity to learn about a player, about a team’s appetite to move a certain player. You keep scouting the player and stay with him, you build history with players that way. Then maybe there’s a deal that does come together and you’re not scrambling to do your homework.”
The Rays knew and liked Arozarena based on the reports from some of their pro scouts. J.D. Elliby saw him in Spring Training and liked him. Tyler Stohr covers the Cardinals every Spring Training for the Rays and had a longer history with the outfielder as a result. When those 2017 Winter Meetings trade talks got hot, Jason Grey and Mike Langill, two Rays scouts based in Arizona high-tailed it to Mexicali to watch and take video of Arozarena playing for his Navojoa club.
All of the reports then were positive about the Cuban-born prospect’s potential impact. As Arozarena moved up the Cardinals ladder and established himself as more of a bona fide prospect, the Rays took note and added to the positive reviews.
“When you have four or five guys and they all start saying the same things, it makes me as a director feel good,” Ibach said. “We know it’s not a one-off opinion and makes the decision that much easier.
“It’s like reading a book. You want to read the introduction, you want to read Chapter 1, you don’t want to skip straight to the end. Building that history is something I think we do an excellent job of. You want to make sure you’re not making an impulsive decision.”
Evaluating the trade
Typically, handing out a scorecard for a trade that largely involves prospects isn’t something that can be done for several years. The way Arozarena has burst on the scene does make it tempting to give the victory to the Rays.
“With the postseason he’s had, it makes it look a lot better,” Ibach said. “But nobody said in January that Arozarena would lead us to the World Series offensively. None of us is that smart.”
The Rays only made the deal because Arozarena provided both short- and long-term potential, even if they didn’t know just how dramatic the former would be. Tampa Bay doesn’t do playoff rentals -- it doesn't make this trade for two months of Arozarena -- but for some, this deal was similar to the Cubs’ decision to trade Gleyber Torres to the Yankees for Aroldis Chapman. Chicago knew Torres was destined for very good things, just like Tampa Bay knows Liberatore has the chance to go on to be a frontline starting pitcher in the big leagues for a long time. The Cardinals are certainly banking on it.
“We felt outfield was an area we could trade from and one of our focuses was identifying the best pitching prospect we could find,” Cardinals general manager Michael Girsch said. “Clearly, Randy is experiencing historic success during Tampa’s playoff run to the World Series. We couldn’t be happier for him and, at the same time, are really excited about what Matthew was able to do this summer at our alternate training site.
“As with any deal involving prospects, it is going to take time before we can completely evaluate the trade, but clearly things look great for Tampa at the moment with Randy helping them reach the World Series.”
“The way our organization is built, it’s great we’re sitting here in the World Series with Randy Arozarena, but at the time of the trade, it wasn’t looked at as a Chapman piece, it was a piece that gives us present-day value and the future value that we covet,” Ibach said. “That makes it more palatable.”
That’s not to downplay what Arozarena has meant to the organization thus far. Ibach’s been scouting for two decades and knows enough to tip his cap when the player deserves credit for taking advantage of an opportunity and outperforming expectations.
“You can fill a notebook talking about your misses as much as your hits,” Ibach said. “The energy, the excitement, the charisma, the ability to hit the ball hard, we knew he had that. But if I could have sat there 10 months ago saying that he’d do this, I should be buying lottery tickets every night.
“It’s always fun to look back and see how it’s turned out. It’s a testament to Randy and to the adjustments he’s made form the time we got him to where he is now.”