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The Cardinals Did Well in the Jose Martinez-Matt Liberatore Trade

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Cafecito and Arozarena will be missed, but the Cardinals acquired a lot of value by trading them.

2019 NLCS Game 2 - Washington Nationals v. St. Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/MLB Photos via Getty Images

As reported Thursday night, the Cardinals completed a six player trade with the Tampa Bay Rays. The Cardinals sent outfielders Jose Martinez, Randy Arozarena, and a Compensation A draft pick (after the first round) to Tampa Bay. In exchange, they received left-handed pitching prospect Matt Liberatore, catching prospect Edgardo Rodriguez, and a Compensation B draft pick (after the second round). The deal marks the end of Martinez’s four years with the Cardinals, and finally consummates a deal to Tampa Bay that seems to have been rumored since Moses wore short pants (even if it was really just a little over a year). That Martinez is the most prominent Major Leaguer in the deal should tell you how many unknowns are involved.

From the Cardinals perspective, Liberatore was 63rd as a 50 FV pitching prospect on the most recent version of The Board at FanGraphs. Bear in mind that they assigned that grade to him at 19 years old and he had only thrown approximately 100 professional innings, having been drafted in June 2018. Here’s what Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel had to say about him before 2019:

When Liberatore is at his best, he throws strikes with 93-97 for the first several innings of his starts, show you a 70 curveball, a good change, and alter the timing of his delivery to toy with hitters. He added a slider part way through his junior year and instantly had nascent feel for it. At other times, he’d sit 88-92 with scattershot command and get too cute with Johnny Cueto shenanigans. But the frame, athleticism, arm strength, and ability to spin are all ideal, and there’s immense ceiling here.

Baseball America had Liberatore as the 31st best prospect in the most recent top 100 list posted on October 1st. He recently ranked 3rd in the Rays’ deep farm system behind Wander Franco (top overall prospect in baseball) and Brendan McKay (10th overall). Baseball America has him listed as a 60 FV pitcher, touting his polish, deep repertoire, and excellent command. They also note that he’s “about as safe a bet as a teen pitching prospect can be, and his size and smooth delivery give him a high upside as well.”

I’ll leave more in-depth conversations about his repertoire to other writers like the Red Baron. However, his curveball appears to be his best pitch, with a fastball that can reach 97 (sits 92-95) not too far behind. Baseball America notes that his changeup and slider are also currently average but have above average potential. Between his polish, deep repertoire, athleticism, projectable body, and the fact that he’s left-handed, it’s easy to see why the Cardinals coveted Liberatore. He fits their preferred type in many ways.

Cardinal fans may also recognize him from this Nolan Gorman video around Thanksgiving 2018. The two are friends from their childhood in the Phoenix area:

The Rays also sent along Edgardo Rodriguez, a 19 year old catcher (35+ FV, per FanGraphs) with just 61 professional games under his belt. In their Rays write-up last winter, Longenhagen and McDaniel noted that he has “excellent timing, bat control, and feel for all-fields contact, and he can open up and get his barrel on pitches inside.” They also referred to his ceiling as “sizeable.” Obviously at just 19 and having never played above the Gulf Coast League, he is far apart from his ceiling.

The Cardinals sent Jose Martinez and Randy Arozarena to the Rays. Each possessed their own special skills that made them potentially valuable to the 2020 Cardinals, but massive outfield depth in the organization made them expendable. Even after dealing two outfielders to the Rays and Adolis Garcia to Texas, the Cardinals currently have Harrison Bader, Dexter Fowler, Tyler O’Neill, Lane Thomas, Justin Williams, and Dylan Carlson, plus any portion of time they’d like to give Tommy Edman in the outfield in his newfound role as The Zobrist™. Martinez’s defensive struggles ate into the value he provided with his bat, a shortcoming that can be dampened in the American League. He’ll turn 32 next season, increasing the need to find a place to stash his bat without the loss of value on defense.

Martinez was a solid hitter in his time in St. Louis, even if his power waned over the last season and a half. His Statcast metrics were still solid and if any team can find the proper way to leverage Cafecito’s rich blend of plate coverage, lefty mashing, questionable defense, and effervescent personality, it’s the Rays.

Arozarena was a 40 FV prospect on FanGraphs and a 45 on Baseball America. His speedy game was the fulcrum to a huge 2019 season in AA and AAA. He slashed .344/.431/.571 across the two levels last season and earned a late-season call-up that he punctuated with quite a September game in Arizona:

It was hard to ignore his .380 BABIP in AA and .404 BABIP in AAA, which drove his production to unsustainable heights. Still, his approach at the plate improved across his time in the organization, and he produced everywhere he played except his first pass at AAA in 2018 (81 wRC+). He wasn’t lower than a 115 wRC+ at any other stop in his three years as a Cardinal. Even without major cred on top prospect lists, all Arozarena ever did for the most part was hit, speed around the bases, and hustle down flyballs all over the outfield. He was pinched out of playing time in St. Louis but could easily slot in as a plus defender in the corners for the Rays with just enough bat to carry it as a regular, or a tweener fourth outfielder. The range of outcomes is wide but he’s worth something more for the Rays than he is for the Cardinals.

The Math

Figuring out the math is relatively simple thanks to multiple available tools. First, we can use the 25/40/60 method of arbitration to reverse engineer an estimate for the future cost of Martinez. That comes out to $3.2M in 2021 and $4.8M in 2022 in addition to his $2M this season for a total of $10M. Projecting his performance is trickier. Depth Charts currently projects him at 0.6 fWAR this season. We’ll guess and give him 0.5 fWAR total over the next two seasons- 0.4 and then 0.1. That puts him at a discounted surplus of $475k.

We’ll split the difference between the FanGraphs 40 FV and Baseball America’s 45 for Arozarena and value him as a 40+ FV prospect. Using Craig Edwards’ methodology, that gives Arozarena $4M of value. Additionally, there’s the Cardinals Comp A pick at #38, worth $8.1M.

Liberatore’s value is contingent on whether or not he’s a 50 or 55 FV prospect. It’s $21M if he’s a 50, and $34M if he’s a 55. As highly as Baseball America thinks of him, it’s fair to split the difference and call it $27.5M. Edgardo Rodriguez is too young to have value to date, but we’ll assign him $0.5M. The Comp B pick (#66) is worth $4.2M

Cardinals Receive $32.2M in Value

  • Liberatore, $27.5M
  • Rodriguez, $0.5M
  • Comp B pick, $4.2M

Rays Receive $12.575M in Value

  • Martinez, $.475M
  • Arozarena, $4M
  • Comp A pick, $8.1M

This is quite a deal for the Cardinals. It’s not as bad as it looks for the Rays- Martinez and Arozarena have value for the Rays that they wouldn’t be able to provide in St. Louis, and I’d guess each will beat those surplus amounts- but the Cardinals came out ahead. It’s something of a make-up call for the Pham trade. They leveraged their outfield depth and a compensation pick into one of the 50 best prospects in baseball. They improved their fortunes in 2022 and beyond without hurting their 2020 chances. That’s a win.