ST. LOUIS -- Throughout the offseason, the Cardinals have tried to reduce the redundancy in their outfield by exploring trades with teams that could give quality talent in return. A trade with the Rays on Thursday night did just that, and it could have ripple effects as the Cards head into the final month of the offseason.
The Cardinals and Rays completed a trade that will send outfielders José Martínez and Randy Arozarena and a Competitive Balance Round A Draft pick to Tampa Bay in exchange for left-hander Matthew Liberatore -- MLB's No. 41 prospect per MLB Pipeline -- catching prospect Edgardo Rodriguez and a Competitive Balance Round B Draft pick.
The Rays’ new Draft pick falls after Round 1 of June’s MLB Draft, while the pick received by the Cardinals comes after Round 2.
Rays get: OF José Martínez, OF Randy Arozarena, Competitive Balance Round A Draft pick
Cardinals get: LHP Matthew Liberatore, C Edgardo Rodriguez, Competitive Balance Round B Draft pick
What it means
The Cardinals' roster was loaded with Major League outfielders and not enough spots to play them, so the team has explored ways this offseason to narrow the competition that they hope to see in the spring. The Cardinals have publicly committed to Dexter Fowler in right field and Harrison Bader in center entering the start of 2020, which left more than five players to compete in left field.
But with Martínez and Arozarena traded on Thursday, and Adolis García traded to the Rangers after he was designated for assignment in December, the Cardinals have reduced their outfield depth enough that signing free agent Marcell Ozuna becomes an even more distinct possibility. Ozuna has expressed interest in returning to St. Louis, but the Cardinals haven’t been ready to commit to the multi-year deal that Ozuna seeks because of the young outfielders in the system.
St. Louis also has Lane Thomas, who is expected to compete for playing time at all three outfield spots, Tyler O’Neill, who has also drawn interest from other teams, and Justin Williams in the outfield mix this year. Dylan Carlson, the Cardinals’ No. 1 prospect per MLB Pipeline, could also make his debut this season, and the Cards want to clear space for him in the following years.
In return for clearing space on their Major League roster, the Cardinals have deepened their farm system by adding a highly touted prospect in Liberatore and young catching depth in Rodriguez.
What the Cardinals get
Liberatore, 20, was selected by the Rays with the No. 16 overall pick in the 2018 Draft, three spots before the Cardinals selected third baseman Nolan Gorman, who is Liberatore's close friend from their high-school days in Arizona. Liberatore, a 6-foot-5 left-hander, made 16 appearances (15 starts) for Class A Bowling Green in 2019, going 6-2 with a 3.10 ERA, 76 strikeouts and 31 walks in 78 1/3 innings.
Liberatore is known for having a plus curveball, can touch 95 mph with his fastball and has a developing changeup that scouts believe has a chance to become his best secondary pitch. He is now the top arm in the Cardinals' farm system, ranked by MLB Pipeline as St. Louis' No. 3 prospect.
The Cardinals have been searching for left-handed pitching at all levels recently, and now their two top pitching prospects -- Liberatore and Zack Thompson, the Cards’ top Draft pick last year out of Kentucky -- are southpaws.
Rodriguez, 19, signed with the Rays out of Venezuela in 2017. He logged 10 games in the Gulf Coast League last season, going 10-for-25 with six RBIs. Prior to that, he hit .330 with six homers in 51 games in the Dominican Summer League in 2018.
What the Cardinals give up
The Rays have been interested in Martínez for some time, but he signed a two-year deal with the Cardinals last year and was their top bat coming off the bench in 2019, when he slashed .269/.340/.410.
The 31-year-old has defensive shortcomings -- finishing with minus-9 Outs Above Average over 79 games in the corner-outfield spots -- that makes him a good candidate to serve as a designated hitter in the American League. But his .329/.397/.600 slash line against lefties in 2019 -- and his career .821 OPS -- will be missed in a Cardinals lineup that is searching for offensive answers.
Arozarena was the Cardinals’ No. 10 prospect and made his MLB debut in 2019 after he hit .344 in the Minors last year. He has elite speed, which helped him earn a spot on St. Louis' postseason roster. Despite his production in the Minors and his speed -- he tied for 23rd in the Majors in average sprint speed last season at 29.4 feet per second -- the 25-year-old couldn’t find playing time in the Cardinals’ packed outfield and received only 23 plate appearances.
The trade reduced the Cardinals’ 40-man roster to 38 players.
What comes next?
The Cardinals’ biggest need this offseason has been offense, and they just gave up two Major League hitters. So despite a relatively quiet winter up to this point, it doesn’t feel like the Cards are finished exploring ways to improve for 2020.
Thursday’s deal could be a precursor to adding some power to the lineup. Removing two outfielders from the equation allows the Cardinals to see where Ozuna might fit if they want to bring him back to St. Louis -- which has been Ozuna’s preferred destination all along. The left fielder would give the Cardinals the power that they seek and would fill the hole in their cleanup spot.
Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado has been linked to the Cardinals, and Liberatore would give the Cardinals another trade chip to use if they pursued the All-Star third baseman. But a lot of hurdles would need to be cleared for a trade like that to happen, starting with the Rockies’ willingness to trade their star player and followed by Arenado’s no-trade clause that came with the $260 million contract he signed last year.
Regardless of what might come next, the Cardinals have cut down the logjam in their outfield and given themselves flexibility to potentially add more this offseason, all while adding an excellent arm for the future.