The Matthew Liberatore trade looks really good for the Cardinals. They gave up two players that were not going to have huge roles on the 2020 team and traded from a position of strength and depth in order to get a high end prospect. Especially with the team’s general lack of star power and any left-handed starting pitching talent in the recent past, it is hard to not like this move for the Cardinals. However, with all the young outfield talent that the Cardinals have, it begs the question: did the Cardinals trade the right young outfielder or should they have traded someone else?
Without considering Dylan Carlson, as he is likely off the table in all trade talks, the Cardinals had Harrison Bader, Tyler O’Neill, Lane Thomas, and Randy Arozarena to choose from. This discussion also completely disregards the possibility that the Rays specifically wanted Arozarena and would not have been willing to do the trade with a different player. However, with these four players all being possibilities, did the Cardinals choose the worst one, and thus, the best player to trade?
Randy Arozarena did not receive much playing time in the MLB last season, but Shildt and Co. apparently liked him enough to add him to the playoff roster. However, there are a lot of questions with Arozarena. He is clearly a good player, but how sustainable are his numbers in 2019. In 116 AA at-bats, Arozarena posted a 162 wRC+ and three homer runs with a .380 BABIP. Then, in AAA, the 24-year-old put up a 151 wRC+ and 12 home runs with a .404 BABIP in 283 at-bats. This was a massive uptick in home run rate and with the hitting environment of the Pacific Coast League, it leaves a lot of questions as to the sustainability of his production. At the very least, Arozarena appears to be a pretty good hitter who is fast and plays solid defense in the outfield. This should make him a decent MLB player. However, what will likely determine his future value will be his power. If his power increase last year was sustainable, then he will likely be a strong bat in the lineup and a solid glove in the field, but if his power drops off to normal levels (11-12 HRs per season) then he will lose some value, while still likely being a decent to good hitter.
Harrison Bader is likely better than Arozarena and will continue to be in the future even though his struggles at the plate this season are pretty well known to Cardinals fans. He finished 2019 with a wRC+ of 81 and a strikeout rate of 28.8%. That is clearly not good. However, despite these struggles, he manged to post 1.8 fWAR in 128 games due to his strong defense in center field. His defense is valauble enough to make him a usable player even when he is struggling at the plate. If he can even be an average hitter, then his defense would likely push him into the 3-4 WAR range. For example, in 2018 he posted a 107 wRC+ which led to a 3.6 fWAR in 138 games. That is one heck of a player, especially if he plays 150 games or more. In 2018, Bader definitely experience some positive batted ball luck, but in 2019, he experienced some negative batted ball luck. Therefore, it is not hard to imagine Bader’s future numbers settling somewhere in between a 2-4 WAR player with the potential to consistently push towards 4 WAR if he develops his hit tool. This is clearly a valuable player that is probably better than Arozarena, both now and in the future.
It is difficult to determine Tyler O’Neill’s value at the plate. It is not hard to project his defense as being at least average, even though he struggles a little bit in left field this season (-11.3 UZR/150). However, what is difficult is projecting his bat. The one thing that is clear is that O’Neill has power, and he has a lot of it. In 2017 he hit 31 home runs across the AA and AAA levels while in 2018 he hit 35 home runs across the AAA and MLB levels. However, his power production dropped off to just 18 home runs in 2019. The problem with O’Neill is that he strikes out too much. He struck out in 35.1% of his MLB at bats this season and 30.7% of his at bats in AAA. The analysis of this is simple: if he develops his hit tool and drops his strikeout rate by 7-10% then he could become a very good hitter. However, 7-10% is pretty substantial, but with the kind of potential that he has, it makes sense that the Cardinals did not want to give him up. If everything goes well for O’Neill then he will likely become a more valuable player than Arozarena, but if he keeps striking out at the same rate, then Arozarena will likely be more valuable than him.
They may be a case to be made that between Arozarena and Lane Thomas, the Cardinals should have traded Lane Thomas. However, he projects to do everything well. He has a decent hit tool, he developed power in 2018 (27 homers) and seems to have carried it over to 2019, he is fast (sprint speed of 29.6 ft/s), and he plays good defense and has a strong arm. Thomas broke out in 2018 when he posted a 123 wRC+ in AA and a 110 wRC+ in AAA and combined for 27 home runs across the two levels. He struggled in 2018 when he went back to AAA, but then he raked in 44 big league at-bats before getting hurt. It does not appear that his breakout season was caused by batted ball luck, however, but it is difficult to understand his struggles in Memphis this year, esecially given the previously mentioned hitter friendly PCL environment. Despite this, when compared to Arozarena, it seems like Thomas has more power and a better arm in the outfield, while Arozarena might have a better hit tool and a slight edge in terms of defense. This comparison is pretty close and it is hard to fault the Cardinals for choosing one way or the other.
It appears that giving up Arozarena was the right decision by the Cardinals. Bader’s strong defense will always give him a shot at 4 WAR each season if his bat show some improvement. Tyler O’Neill can be a very valuable player if he can cut down on his strikeouts a bit, and Lane Thomas seems to do everything well. Bader and O’Neill both have standout tools (Bader - defense/speed, O’Neill - power) while Thomas does not lack any. These standout tools give Bader and O’Neill high ceilings, and thus, it makes sense that the Cardinals would want to keep them. Arozarena seems to be in the same vein as Thomas as he can do a little bit of everything, and an argument could be made that the Cardinals should have valued Arozarena more than Thomas. However, with Lane Thomas’ more advanced power tool, and standout arm strength (7 assists in 2019) he is a good bet to be a solid player. Overall, the decision to trade Arozarena, instead of any other young outfielder of comparable value, seems to have been the right call.