During the course of writing this year’s prospect list, a deal was made that affected the top of the list. This hasn’t happened particularly often in my time composing the lists, which I suppose speaks to both the stability and the dedication to the plan of the Cardinal organisation. Trades have been made, obviously, forcing me to change out pieces here and there over the years, but rarely have the pieces involved been top five or even usually top ten players.
The Cardinals do not deviate much from their belief in drafting and development being the way to consistent winning, and that’s reflected in how seldom they move the players they feel are long-term building blocks. Sandy Alcantara was exciting, but was still a work in progress when the Cards moved him in the Marcell Ozuna deal. Carson Kelly would count as a top piece had he not already graduated, but that was a somewhat unique situation created by a logjam at the position. The Cards are usually much more willing to deal their top young talents after they have seen what said young talents will be at the major league level. They will deal a Shelby Miller or a Luke Weaver; less so an Alex Reyes or Dakota Hudson. (Again, there are obviously exceptions, but I don’t think I’m totally off base here.)
This year, though, the Cards made a deal that directly affected the top of the prospect list. The interesting thing, of course, is that this was not a case of the organisation pushing in their chips for the coming season and spending a big piece to bulk up. Rather, this was a top five prospect piece for...another top five prospect piece. Prospect for prospect trades are rare, and this was, admittedly, not a straight swap. The trade as a whole included Jose Martinez, a minor league catcher, a swap of pick spots (roughly 30 spaces difference in the draft), and the two big prospects in the deal. While much of the coverage of the trade at places like MLB’s website focused on Jose Martinez as the big piece, though, I don’t think that’s how the teams involved actually see it. In my mind, the trade breaks down more realistically to something like Jose Martinez for Edgardo Rodriguez, the low-level but intriguing tooled-up catcher, and then Randy Arozarena plus the pick swap value for Matthew Liberatore. There’s probably a bit more bleed through in terms of how the overall values match up, but I really believe the big piece in this deal from the Rays’ side was not, in fact, Jose Martinez, but Randy Arozarena.
So before we go any further, let’s get with the scouting, shall we?
#4: Randy Arozarena, OF
5’11”, 170 lbs; Bats/Throws: Right/Right
DOB: 28th February 1995
Level(s) in 2019: Springfield (AA), Memphis (AAA), St. Louis
Relevant Stats: 116 PA, .309/.422/.515, 162 wRC+ (Spr), 283 PA, .358/.435/.593, 151 wRC+ (Mem), 23 PA, .300/.391/.500, 138 wRC+, 8.7% BB, 17.4% K (StL)
So, what’s so great about this guy?
It feels, at least to me, like Randy Arozarena has been around longer than he actually has. Part of that is probably my own fault; I’ve been talking about Arozarena in these electronic pages since literally the day he signed with the Cardinals, and thus I’ve probably accounted for a lot of the conversation surrounding him. It’s worth remembering, though, that the Cuban defector has only been in the Cards’ system since 2017.
To be fair, that since 2017 time window covers a lot of ground, in terms of things Randy Arozarena has done. He has played mostly at Double and Triple A; he began at Palm Beach in ‘17 and beat up the pitchers there while not walking basically at all, then moved up to Springfield and walked 14% of the time. He utterly dominated the Texas League on a return trip to begin 2018, then actually faltered in his first shot at Triple A. It was the only stop at which Arozarena has struggled; of the seven partial seasons he has recorded over three years (including his time in St. Louis in 2019), only once has he posted a wRC+ below 115, on that first trip through the Pacific Coast League.
At various times, Randy Arozarena has shown plus contact ability, plus power, and plus plate discipline. What he hasn’t really done is shown all of those things at the same time. It’s been an interesting process to watch Arozarena move up through the ranks, looking like a substantially different hitter depending upon when and where you happened to see him. In 2019, though, that really started to change. I think what we saw last year was the real deal, and while I cannot deny that the crazy numbers Arozarena put up in the minors last year were largely the product of absurd batted-ball outcomes — he posted a .380 BABIP in Springfield and a ridiculous .404 in Memphis — I don’t think it was entirely a fluke, either. I watched a lot of those games, and Randy earned way more of those hits than he lucked into. No, he won’t BABIP .380+ in the big leagues, but he didn’t outluck Triple A. He just outhit it.
At his best, Arozarena could be described as a five-tool player. He has obvious hitting chops, is capable of punishing the ball for extra base power if not necessarily tons of over the fence pop, is a plus runner, plays what looks to me like an outstanding corner outfield (and a reasonable center field), and has a 60-65 grade throwing arm. The only real downside I can point to in Arozarena’s game is the fact he is, somewhat surprisingly, not a great baserunner. There’s a thin line between aggression and recklessness, and Arozarena tends to fall on the bad side of that line. Other than that, though, there is nothing Randy Arozarena cannot do on the baseball field, and mostly excel at. He’s not big, and so it’s easy to look at him and put a limit on his ceiling, but I happen to think that’s nonsense. It’s possible the tools are more good than great, and Arozarena ends up an athletic fourth outfield type, but for my money I’m betting that a full season of Randy Arozarena in the big leagues doesn’t look substantially different from what he did with the Cardinals in September. And that is, potentially, a star-level performance. Probably he falls a little short of that. But I don’t think he falls that far short of it.
If he’s good, it will look like: Honestly, most of the comps I keep wanting to go to for Arozarena seem very hyperbolic, but something like the good version of Alex Gordon from the early aughts is around what I think he could be. A right-handed hitter instead of a lefty, obviously, but the rest of the package feels about right. I could also see a Starling Marte comp, though I do feel Arozarena has a better command of the strike zone than Marte ever really has, and probably not the baserunning chops of peak early-career Marte.
That’s the scouting report, without delving into the trade too much. Now let’s talk about the trade a little more. I held back on saying too much about the deal at the time, as I was trying to decide how I wanted to organise the info on both the outgoing player and the incoming guy.
You’ll notice I placed Arozarena at number four in the Cards’ system; he would have slotted in right behind Andrew Knizner and ahead of Ivan Herrera. The player the Cardinals acquired, Matthew Liberatore, leapfrogged Knizner to come in at number three. I honestly don’t think the Cardinals improved their farm system all that much by dealing Arozarena for Liberatore, as much of a fan as I am of the young lefty. As for why Arozarena would have ranked in that particular slot, I favoured the high floor of Knizner due to his position and proximity just enough to push him ahead of a player I think has a higher ceiling, but who fits best in a corner outfield spot and has, admittedly, had what looks like a lot of batted-ball fortune go his way in putting up the big numbers he has. (For the record, I also was not extremely confident in placing Knizner ahead of Arozarena, so take that for whatever you will.)
A while back, a column on the main page of this website asked the question: did the Cardinals trade the right young outfielder? I’d like to give you my own personal answer to that question now.
The short answer is no.
The longer answer is nooo.
I would have much preferred to see the Cardinals move Tyler O’Neill or Lane Thomas in the Liberatore deal rather than Arozarena. I would not say the same about Dylan Carlson, because I believe Carlson’s all-around excellence does make him a superior prospect, and a safer bet, but it’s maybe a little closer than you might think. The Cardinals are going to regret trading Randy Arozarena. Now, to be fair, even if Arozarena turns into the kind of player I think he can be, they may not have much cause to regret dealing him if Carlson comes up soon and fills a long-term outfield spot and Liberatore makes the improvements he needs to in order to go from tools monster to just monster; if the Cardinals have the assets to fill their needs, even dealing away a very good player may not hurt much. If Tyler O’Neill turns out to be one of those crazy power guys like a Judge or Gallo, it will sting less, obviously. But all the same, in two years’ time I would say that an outfield of Dylan Carlson, Harrison Bader, and Randy Arozarena would be a top five unit in all of baseball, that’s how much I believe in the two prospects in that scenario.
Of course, we don’t know if the Cardinals were leaning toward moving Arozarena or if the Rays really wanted him more than the alternatives; if I had to bet I would actually put my money on the latter. I think Tampa was set on Arozarena, and I would tend to agree with them. And if that was the cost of acquiring a potential top of the rotation guy, then as I said, maybe it all works out.
In the end, this was about time horizons and trying to leverage resources, in a similar way to the Oscar Mercado deal of 2018. In that trade the Cardinals were trying to turn near-term potential value into further off but hopefully greater value by exchanging an outfielder for, well, more outfielders. Jhon Torres looks like he very well might be the sort of player who makes that gamble look smart, while I am very much not a believer in Connor Capel. In this case, it wasn’t only a timing issue, but a positional one. The Cardinals only made their system slightly better by making this deal, as I said earlier, but I do think they managed to make it so that they have a better chance of realising a higher percentage of the value they have on hand than if they had kept Arozarena.
There’s a very good chance Randy would have simply gotten lost in the outfield shuffle in St. Louis in 2020, and the Cards might very well have wasted a year of his service time by playing him only sporadically, since they have multiple options to work through, a cornerstone piece on the way, and are bafflingly unwilling to simply move on from Dexter Fowler. In the new arrangement, they have a player in Liberatore who is less likely to get squeezed out of playing time and could have a major impact when he comes up in a couple years, rather than fighting for playing time in an extremely crowded outfield. Of course, the Cards also took on substantial risk in making that happen; there’s a much greater chance Liberatore flames out due to injury or simple failure to make a developmental step up than Arozarena is a complete zero, in my opinion.
The other thing the Cardinals did by exchanging Arozarena for Liberatore is add to a really intriguing wave of talent that could be arriving in, say, two years or so. Dylan Carson is obviously a big deal, and will be up in St. Louis at some point this coming season. After that, though, we start to see what looks like a huge wave gathering for the 2022 and 2023 seasons, if things go well in terms of player development. Nolan Gorman will hopefully reach Double A in 2020, and is probably on track for a 2022 ETA. Liberatore might be touch longer in coming; I’d say midseason 2022 or maybe a September call up that season, ready for prime time in ‘23. Ivan Herrera is still only nineteen for now, but he’s already played in High A and handled the competition in the Arizona Fall League with aplomb. A 2021 call up and 2022 arrival date doesn’t seem out of the question. Jhon Torres is more likely a 2023 than a ‘22 (maybe more like midseason ‘23 at his current pace), but he has the talent to become an impact player if he can recover from his struggles in Peoria this past season. Angel Rondon and Zack Thompson both look like 2021 arrivals, Rondon probably a little ahead of Thompson. Zack Thompson in April of 2022 will be 24 years old and ready to take off, if he’s ever going to. The crop of pitchers the Cards drafted this past June should produce a couple arms capable of at least relief work within the next two years.
I won’t say the Cardinals are for certain headed for another 2013-esque wave of talent coming up at the same time; that crop was largely the product of a ridiculous draft class in 2009 that just happened to come together all at the same time. (It also ended up a crop of talent that largely busted, but that’s a column for another day.) But if we look at the time horizon for maturation on the players at the top of this year’s prospect list, there is a pretty clear arrow pointing toward 2022 as the year when we could see a potentially transformative group matriculate their way to St. Louis again. I don’t know if this is a purposeful design on the part of John Mozeliak and Michael Girsch, or if it just happens to look that way at the moment for random reasons. But it really feels like the Cards could be looking at a very special group coming along over the next couple years, should they keep their assets and not choose to spend some of that capital on a major upgrade in the meantime.
In the end, I love the player the Cardinals acquired in exchange for Randy Arozarena, and I still don’t like the deal itself. They looked at this huge group of outfielders they need to sort through, and then dealt away the best one. (Outside of Carlson, I mean.) Like I said, it may not end up mattering, if enough things go right that the Cards aren’t left with another gaping hole in a corner outfield spot this season, and Liberatore lives up to his potential. Then again, even if things go really well it’s going to look really, really bad if Arozarena turns into Mookie Betts lite for a couple seasons. There was no player in the system I was more excited to watch play in St. Louis than Randy Arozarena, and now that just isn’t going to happen.