Rays net J. Martínez in intriguing deal with Cards

January 10th, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG -- Rays general manager Erik Neander has spent the offseason looking to add a power right-handed bat to a left-handed-heavy lineup. Tampa Bay has finally found a fit.

The Rays and Cardinals completed a deal on Thursday that sends 1B/OF/DH , outfielder and a Competitive Balance Round A Draft pick to Tampa Bay for left-handed pitching prospect Matthew Liberatore -- who was rated the Rays’ fourth-ranked prospect -- catching prospect Edgardo Rodriguez and a Competitive Balance Round B pick.

Rays to get: OF José Martínez, OF Randy Arozarena, Competitive Balance Round A Draft pick (38th overall)
Cardinals to get: LHP Matthew Liberatore, C Edgardo Rodriguez, Competitive Balance Round B Draft pick (66th overall)

To make room on the 40-man roster, the Rays traded right-hander Austin Pruitt to the Astros for prospects Cal Stevenson and Peyton Battenfield. Tampa Bay's 40-man roster remains full.

What it means for the Rays
This deal comes as a surprise, considering the Rays are not particularly known for trading away top prospects, particularly a young arm in Liberatore considered to be a potential future ace and ranked MLB Pipeline’s 41st overall prospect. But with the deal, Tampa Bay is showing its willingness to improve their Major League roster heading into the 2020 season.

Although Liberatore could ultimately end up being the best player in the deal, adding Martínez and Arozarena certainly helps boost a Rays lineup that desperately needed some right-handed help. At designated hitter and first base, Tampa Bay's top options are all left-handed hitters: Ji-Man Choi, Yoshitomo Tsutsugo and Austin Meadows. With Martínez in the fold, it help balances the lineup.

It also gives the Rays a couple of pieces who could play key role over the next few seasons. Liberatore, on the other hand, likely won’t be Major League ready until at least the 2022 season.

“This is a deal that we made because we have really strong evaluations on the players that we acquired,” Neander said. “It’s a deal that strengthens our Major League club not just in ’20, though both these players certainly fit really well in our mix, but it’s something that strengthens us for years to come.

Martínez, 31, is entering the second year of a two-year, $3.25 million contract and is arbitration-eligible through 2022, giving the Rays a few years of control. The same goes for Arozarena, 25, who still has two years remaining before entering his three arbitration years.

What the Rays are getting
Tampa Bay has been high on Martínez for a couple of years, trying to negotiate a deal for him in the past. His ability to hit left-handers played a big factor in the Rays feeling comfortable enough to part with Liberatore in the deal.

Over his career, Martínez has a .976 OPS against left-handers, including a .997 clip in 2019 despite seeing a dip in overall performance. In a division that is loaded with left-handed pitching, adding a bat like Martínez was a priority for the Rays this offseason.

“He’s a really good hitter,” Neander said. “He has extra-base ability, but this is a player that, in our opinion, his greatest strengths are in the batter’s box, and he’s going to have an opportunity to really focus on that with us."

Martínez has also built a reputation for making hard contact. He has a 90-mph average exit velocity over his four-year career. One concern, however, is that Martínez’s barrel percentage has declined from 10.7% in 2017 to just 8.7% in ’19. His hard-contact rate was also down from 44.3% in 2018 to 39.3% last season.

“In a pursuit of upgrading our lineup against left-handed pitching and upgrading from the right side, he’s someone that really fits us well in that regard, and [we] believe the numbers he put up last year are not as representative of who he is as a hitter and believe he’s closer to what we saw the two prior years,” Neander said. “Beyond that, by all accounts, wonderful teammate, wonderful leadership in the clubhouse. Really could bring a group together, and that was something that was important as we were looking for ways to round up our club here.”

Martínez will make most of his appearances as the team’s designated hitter, which is a more natural fit than playing the outfield or first base. He’ll split time with JiMan Choi, Meadows and Díaz, who all saw time at DH in 2019.

Arozarena made his Major League debut in August after posting strong numbers in the Minors. In 92 games with Double-A Springfield and Triple-A Memphis, the Cuban outfielder hit 15 home runs and finished with a .344/.431/.571 slash line. At the big league level, Arozarena had just 23 plate appearances but hit .300 (6-for-20) and one home run. He also possesses elite speed, finishing tied for 23rd in the Majors in average sprint speed last season at 29.4 feet per second.

“He showed well in limited action at the tail end of last year, but he’s someone who we believe is on the cusp of establishing himself as a very good Major League player with meaningful upside,” Neander said. “It’s led by his elite athleticism and certainly the significant growth that we saw from him as a hitter in 2019.”

What’s next for Rays?
Adding Martínez and Arozarena helps the Rays become more functional in 2020. Martínez is the right-handed bat they coveted, while Arozarena helps fill a void and projects to be a quality fourth outfielder. Tampa Bay will remain open to other possibilities over the last month of the offseason, but the ’20 roster is looking clearer after Thursday’s moves.

“I think [the trade] rounds out our club,” Neander said. “If you look at José’s track record and how he can fit in our club given our personnel, that’s a really clean fit, and very much checks that box, in our opinion, to improve ourselves against lefties. Randy being a right-hander as well, he’s in that mix.”

What’s next for Cardinals?
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 Marcell 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 Cards 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 Cards 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 Colorado's willingness to trade its star player and followed by Arenado’s no-trade clause that came with the $260 million contract he signed last year.