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Reverse Engineering the Arozarena Trade

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Arozarena is good. Did the Cardinals know this? Yes. They did. But a system shortage allowed him to become an expendable asset.

League Championship - Tampa Bay Rays v Houston Astros - Game Four Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Randy Arozarena can hit the baseball. Over the last few weeks, the former Cardinals’ prospect has captured baseball’s attention with a phenomenal display of offensive prowess.

As of Friday afternoon, Arozarena has hit 13 HRs in 128 combined regular season and postseason plate appearances. His HR rate is around 50% per fly ball.

He’s the greatest baseball player who ever lived.

Ok. He’s probably not, but you would never know it from the way Cardinals nation is responding to his success. There’s a great deal of self-loathing, more than a little rage-Tweeting at the front office, and some very revisionist back-slapping “told ya so’s!” going on.

It’s understandable. The Cardinals’ outfield wasn’t particularly good this season. Arozarena was and is.

Obviously, the Cardinals should have known that Arozarena was the secret love-child of Babe Ruth, Albert Pujols, and Bob Sagat. They only traded him because he posted that video! No, it was because they can’t evaluate offensive talent! No, it’s because Shildt liked Yairo Munoz in the outfield more!

Pick your reason. I’ve heard them all over the last three weeks.

There’s a small measure of truth to a lot of these points. None capture why this deal happened.

Maybe, just maybe, the Cardinals traded Arozarena because he was good and they knew it.

Today, I’m going to try to reverse engineer the Jose Martinez/Arozarena for Matthew Liberatore trade to get a better understanding of how it happened and what the Cardinals were thinking when they made this deal.

The only way this trade makes any sense is if we start with the assumption that both the Cardinals and the Rays believed Arozarena was an excellent prospect with a bright future in the majors.

Remember, Mozeliak had tried to move Jose Martinez several times leading into the winter of 2020. Those trades went nowhere; the Cardinals could not get any value in return for the aging and position-less Martinez. Then, in 2019, Martinez had a down year. His value cratered.

Somehow, it was at this low point that the Cardinals were finally able to move him. Martinez was shipped alongside Arozarena to the prospect-astute Rays for a top-50 rated pitcher who reportedly had the best left-handed stuff in the minors.

This only makes sense if both franchises had high expectations of Arozarena.

The Cardinals had to have valued Arozarena highly because they asked for the moon (Liberatore) for him AND demanded that the Rays take a player they didn’t really care about (Martinez).

The Rays had to have valued Arozarena highly because they were willing to give up the moon (Liberatore) AND take a player they didn’t care much about (Martinez) to get him.

Those two facts don’t make this deal any easier to swallow. Especially considering the 2020 outfield situation. If the Cardinals liked Arozarena, then why didn’t they keep him instead of O’Neill and Thomas, who are obviously terrible! (Hyperbole!)

This is where need and a little perspective enters the equation. Even though they liked Arozarena, the Cardinals needed Liberatore more.

That’s where many Cardinals fans check out on me.

The conventional wisdom is that Mozeliak has a seemingly endless supply of young pitchers coming through the system but real issues with position player depth. 2020 is proof, right? Mozeliak dug deep into the system to find arms and still cobbled together one of the better staffs in the game. The offense, though? Yuck.

A Cardinals team so deep on pitching should never have traded away a quality hitting prospect!

Despite what 2020 seems to reveal, this conventional wisdom is wrong. To prove it, let’s look at the Cardinals’ system depth in two models: pre-arbitration MLB players and rookie-eligible prospects heading into the 2020 season, at the time of the Arozarena trade.

Pitching vs. Offensive Depth: MLB-experienced Pre-Arbs as of January 2020

Pitchers: Flaherty, Brebbia, Gallegos, Hudson, Hicks, Webb, Ponce, Gomber, Helsley, Reyes

Hitters: Martinez (who had a short arb extension), Bader, Edman, O’Neill, Ravelo

At the MLB level in January 2020, the Cardinals had more young pitching depth than hitting depth – 10 pre-arb pitchers vs. 5 pre-arb bats. Need, though, is a factor. The Cardinals, with a veteran offense, could only project two starting roles for pre-arb players (CF and LF) and three bench spots. The pitching staff, with only six veteran pitchers on the roster, had space for seven pre-arbs spread across the rotation and bullpen.

This seems to prove the conventional wisdom and challenges my argument. With plenty of pre-arb pitching depth — more than the Cardinals could keep on the MLB roster — why trade a young hitter? Why trade for a pitcher?

Pitching vs. Offensive Depth: Prospect Rankings as of January 2020

This is where the system comes into play. Historically, the Cardinals have developed pitchers as well or better than any other team in the majors. With plenty of pitching depth at the major league level, there is an assumption among some fans that there is also plenty of pitching depth in the system. After all, that’s what the Cardinals do!

Do you see the flaw in that argument? Because the Cardinals have usually had pitching depth and currently have pitching depth, they will continue to have pitching depth.

That would likely be true if the Cardinals had continued their draft philosophy of the last quarter century. They haven’t. In the last 2-3 years, the Cardinals have overhauled their draft strategy and that has led to a quiet but dramatic change in their farm system.

Propsect rankings lists as of January 2020 reveal a surprising fact: the Cardinals’ farm is flush with offensive prospects and shockingly thin on starting pitchers. Let’s look at Fangraphs’ rankings (with Arozarena slotted back in & Liberatore removed.)

Focus on the players with a 45 or higher future value rating as those are the players who are likely to reach and stick at the major leagues. At the time of the trade, the Cardinals projected seven players who fit that category:

55 FV or higher: Nolan Gorman 3b, Dylan Carlson OF
50-55 FV: Ivan Herrera C, Randy Arozarena CF
45-50 FV: Zack Thompson LHP, Andrew Knizner C, Genesis Cabrera LHP

The Cards were (and remain) well stacked with higher-end position player prospects. They only have two pitchers who were likely to impact the major league roster.

Below the 45+ future values, the Cardinals had 10 other position players in their rankings and just 7 pitchers. Of those seven, only two, Oviedo and Woodford, were starters.

The gap in the farm system is obvious. Without Liberatore, the Cardinals really had one arm in their entire system who projected to have a good chance at sticking in the rotation — Zack Thompson. Cabrera and Oviedo were a step behind him, both in their upside and their ability to stay in the rotation as they progressed.

Meanwhile, the Cardinals had at least eight bats at 40+ FV and five of those were rated at 45 and higher.

At this point, the Arozarena/Liberatore trade became about prioritizing present vs. future needs.

With some intriguing offensive depth already at the major league level – back in January, most of us still liked O’Neill and Thomas – and a slew of quality offensive prospects on their way – Carlson, Gorman, Arozarena, Herrera, and Knizner – the Cardinals were able to translate an attractive offensive prospect at a position of relative depth into an elite pitching prospect at a position of severe need, while also clearing salary and roster space.

Consider the trade from the Cardinals perspective using three questions:

1: Of the Cards’ highly valued prospect outfielders, who will be better – Carlson or Arozarena? They answered Carlson. Argue if you want, but that’s the right choice from a scouting and age perspective.

2: What is the projectible difference in value between Arozarena and the non-Carlson outfield pre-arbs and prospects (Bader, O’Neill, and Thomas) over the next three years? In other words, if the Cards traded Arozarena and played pre-arbs and lesser prospects, how much would it hurt them? ZiPS projected Arozarena to be a sub 1.0 WAR player through age 27. Bader’s projections were significantly higher. O’Neill’s were even. Thomas’ were lower. Arozarena would have to exceed expectations or the other three would have to flop to create a significant production gap.

3: Considering system depth, is the projectible value added by Liberatore to the Cardinals’ organization worth more than the projectible difference between Arozarena and the system’s other outfielders? Considering the lack of starting pitcher depth in the farm system below the major league level, the answer was a clear yes. Equaling Liberatore’s projected upside on the free agent market could cost a lot of money.

That’s why the trade was made. The Cardinals chose Carlson to couple with their veteran players and trusted any shot-term production gap between their other pre-arb/prospect outfielders and Arozarena would not be greater than the potential value added by Liberatore over the long-term.

One offseason later and not much has changed, despite Arozarena’s rapid emergence. As soon as Carlson gained his extra year of control, he was installed as an outfield starter. He struggled initially but righted the ship in his second time up. His late-season surge lines up pretty well with Arozarena’s emergence in Tampa Bay. Both still look like intriguing prospects.

Meanwhile, O’Neill and Thomas struggled, creating a painful production gap compared to Arozarena. Bader, though, exceeded expectations and also exceeded Arozarena’s production with the Rays during the regular season – 1.0 WAR to .8 WAR.

Liberatore reportedly had a brilliant camp in Springfield and the organization is already talking about him in the mix for next season.

The Rays have already shipped Martinez out.

Maybe that adds a little perspective on the Arozarena trade. It looks bad at the moment, but need for need and production for production, it’s still a trade that can work out to the Cardinals benefit in the short- and long-term.