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Matthew Liberatore: John Mozeliak’s Adam Wainwright

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Looking back on a long-term bet from the Jocketty era and a more recent parallel, in long form.

MILB: JUL 06 Gulf Coast League - GCL Orioles at GCL Rays Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Gather round, everybody, gather round. Scooch in a little closer, now. This is digital land, no virus here to worry about, so everybody bring it in closer. It’s storytime with your old friend the baron, and we’re going back to the semi-magical year of 2007. Actually, that’s not entirely accurate; we’re going back even further to begin with, 2003 to be exact, but 2007 is when the story really starts to pick up steam.

The 2003 Cardinals were...pretty good. Pretty good might not be going quite far enough, actually; the 2003 Cardinals had an absolutely astounding offense, outpacing even the legendary MV3 ‘04 club in terms of scoring runs. That 2004 team scored 855 runs, while the ‘03 squad put up an even more remarkable 876. The 2004 team’s non-pitcher OPS+ was 114; the ‘03 club edged them out there, as well, with a 115 tally. As great as that historic ‘04 club was at putting runs on the board, they actually represented a step down from 2003’s multidirectional attack. The 2004 team featured the MV3 at the absolute pinnacle of the powers, driving a solid — but ultimately no more than solid — supporting cast. The ‘03 offense, on the other hand, boasted five hitters in the starting lineup who posted an OPS+ of 130 or better for the season: Albert Pujols (187), Jim Edmonds (160), Scott Rolen (138), JD Drew (132), and Edgar Renteria (130), along with Tino Martinez putting up an above-average line for the season (though not really a great line for a first baseman), and Eduardo Perez providing enough thunder off the bench that for years after every right-handed bench slugger the Cards signed was classified as filling the Eduardo Perez role.

So how exactly did a team which actually outscored 2004’s 105-win squad end up with an 85-77 record and a seat on the sofa at home come October? Well, it’s pretty simple, and can be summed up in one word: pitching. The pitching staff in 2003 was just short of a disaster, and the bullpen was a disaster. That ‘04 squad had workmanlike producers up and down the roster in terms of pitchers, lacking in star quality but excelling in consistent, night after night performance. The 2003 team, meanwhile, were the kings of the 7-5 loss.

Matt Morris was good in ‘03, and Woody Williams contributed 220 innings of 106 ERA+ ball to the cause. In the bullpen, Jason Isringhausen was excellent, Cal Eldred was solid, and Kiko Calero put up some outstanding performances after coming up from the minors in June. Beyond those guys, pretty much everyone else sucked. The summer of ‘03 was the summer of Esteban Yan, and there are at least a few readers right now trying to shake off the violent chill that just ran up their spines when they read that. Dan Haren was up at 22, but he wasn’t ready yet. Brett Tomko threw over 200 innings for that club, with a 5.28 ERA to show for his troubles. Garrett Stephenson was around all year, and was just as much a disaster as Tomko. Jason Simontacchi had been a great story a year or two prior, going from long-haul trucker to major league pitcher, but in ‘03 he made sixteen starts, appeared 30 more times out of the ‘pen, and recorded a 5.56 ERA. The 2003 Cardinals could score like very few other teams, but they also gave up runs at an incredible pace. The ‘04 team allowed 659 runs. The 2003 Cards gave up 796.

That was the backdrop for the offseason of 2003-’04. The organisation needed pitching, and needed it badly. Chris Carpenter had been signed the year before on the recommendation of Woody Williams, who played with him in Toronto, but had not yet made it all the way back from shoulder surgery. Williams himself was 36, and ‘04 would be his last go-round with the Cardinals. Matt Morris had struggled with a couple nagging injuries, but was still solid in 2003. The Cy Young contender of a couple years earlier, though, was in the rearview mirror by that point. Morris’s curveball was still a weapon, as was the cutter Dave Duncan had taught him to throw, but his velocity was waning badly by ‘03, and the Matty Mo who used to be able to challenge hitters over the plate with power stuff was gone.

Maybe even more concerning was the state of the Cards’ farm system at the time. Years of terrible drafts under Walt Jocketty and a rotating group of farm and scouting directors had left the cupboard bare, and Jocketty’s penchant for trading away any good prospects the club actually did happen upon only exacerbated the situation. John Mozeliak had overseen the draft during the late 90s, when the Cards drafted much of the ammo they would use to help construct their early 2000s core (Adam Kennedy, used in the Jim Edmonds trade, Braden Looper, dealt for Renteria, Placido Polanco, part of the Scott Rolen deal, not to mention JD Drew and Pujols, who contributed in Cardinal uniforms), but from 2001-’03 the organisation really allowed the farm system to stagnate. Chance Caple, Justin Pope, Shaun Boyd, Blake Williams...there’s a reason you don’t recognise these names, unless you happen to be an historian of failed first-round picks. Daric Barton, the club’s top selection in 2003, would actually turn out to be a useful piece, but overall the farm system heading into 2004 was in truly dire straits.

So in December of that year, Walt Jocketty did something he almost never did, and he actually tried to plan for the future. JD Drew, the Cards’ uber-talented but perpetually injured (and perpetually frustrating), right fielder was heading into his final year of club control, and Drew’s agent Scott Boras had made it clear there would be no extension for his client. (To be fair, the Cardinals had shown little inclination toward making Drew a permanent part of their plans either.) He was going to be expensive in 2004, and the club had real holes to fill. Thus, a trade was born.

In mid December, the Cardinals finalised a deal with the Atlanta Braves that sent Drew, a Georgia native whom the Braves coveted and believed they could resign and build around (whoops), and Eli Marrero, one of the more interesting utility player stories of my lifetime, to Atlanta in exchange for Jason Marquis, Ray King, and a 22 year old pitching prospect and former first round pick named Adam Wainwright.

I say that Marrero is one of the more interesting utility player stories I can recall because he came up as a catcher but didn’t match up to the level of receiver Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan demanded. He played some first base, some outfield, a couple games at second base. Problem was, Marrero’s bat stalled out at the major league level, and he never really got the playing time run that he needed to prove himself until it was probably too late. His best season in a Cardinal uniform was 2002, when he posted a 104 OPS+ over 446 plate appearances playing mostly left field and catcher, but also taking a surprising number of at-bats in center field. The utility player who serves as the backup catcher has always seemed like a great idea to me, but LaRussa and Duncan seemed disinclined to use Marrero in that way to any great degree, which is apparently a common thing among managers. All managers seem set on a real backup catcher, and Cardinal managers since Mike Matheny came to town from Milwaukee have pretty much always played their main catchers way more than I personally think is healthy. (Matheny played 141 games in 2003, and we know about Yadier Molina’s immortal workload.)

By the time the trade happened, Marrero was 29 years old, and the promise he showed back in the late 90s had largely dissipated. His ‘02 season was the only year in which he collected more than 350 PAs, both because of his odd positional situation and a long history of nagging injuries, which he held very much in common with Drew. I won’t say Marrero was necessarily mismanaged, but I did always want to see more of him, particularly in that hybrid catcher sort of role.

As for the return, this is where the trade really becomes interesting. Jocketty really made his name with the Cardinals trading for stars whose teams decided they could not afford said stars, or who had soured on them for some reason. Jim Edmonds in Anaheim was a showboat with an admittedly great glove and a good but not otherworldly bat. Scott Rolen couldn’t get along with Larry Bowa in Philadelphia, and was about to get very expensive. Mark McGwire’s price tag was just too high for the legendarily cheap Oakland A’s. Jocketty became known for fleecing teams in these deals, though to be fair he actually did send away some pretty good talent. Bud Smith got hurt, but did have a no-hitter under his belt by the time he left in the Rolen deal. Placido Polanco never hit the heights of Scott Rolen, but did end up having a sixteen-year career which saw him collect two five win seasons and nearly 40 WAR by the time he hung up his cleats after the 2013 season. Adam Kennedy was a perennial three-win player for the Angels from 2002-’05. Braden Looper had a couple strong years closing games for the Marlins and Mets, even if he never lived up to his draft position. My point is, Jocketty clearly came out ahead on most of the deals he made for stars, but the reputation for trading junk for treasure has outgrown what actually happened.

In making this particular trade, though, Jocketty showed a completely different strategic focus, and may very well have been a better long-term GM than he usually got credit for had he and ownership been more willing to take the long view occasionally than they were. Drew went to Atlanta and had the best season of his career by far — totally a coincidence that he stayed on the field for nearly 650 PAs, hit 30 homers, and posted the best plate discipline numbers of his career in his contract year — but left after the ‘04 season for a big contract with the Dodgers. Marrero had a career year in 2004 as well, posting a 128 OPS+, albeit in only 90 games. Sadly, that was both the high point of Marrero’s career and his last hurrah; he left for Kansas City after ‘04 and played only two more injury-plagued seasons before hanging it up at age 32 after ‘06. Still, the bang the Braves got for their buck in 2004 was very impressive; it’s actually somewhat difficult to imagine how good the ‘04 Cardinal offense might have been if they had gotten that version of JD Drew to go along with the MV3.

On the Redbird side, Jason Marquis and Ray King were both capable roleplayers for the Cardinals in 2004 and ‘05. Lefty relief had been a concern in ‘03, but the combination of King and Steve Kline in ‘04 added up to a dominant duo. King’s 2005 season was a little shakier, but still fine. He left in 2006 after feuding with Tony LaRussa. Marquis was arguably the Cards’ strongest starter in 2004, depending on how you want to compare him to Chris Carpenter’s sadly abbreviated campaign. He was a solid innings eater again in 2005, though his home run rate ticked up and his strikeouts fell dangerously low.

FIP never liked Marquis, but his ability to roll up grounders made him a reliable 200 inning a year guy for a team that needed bulk innings. The 2006 season was when things went off the rails for Marquis, as he suddenly went from a 50-55% ground ball guy with mediocre peripherals to a 43% grounder guy with slightly worse peripherals, and that ground ball rate just wasn’t good enough. His home run rate spiked, his penchant for throwing bad breaking balls caught up with him, and suddenly he was nearly unplayable. He did throw one incredible game in 2006; late in the season in Washington, Marquis threw something like 82 straight sinkers against the Nationals, and he lasted seven innings, with a home run by Austin Kearns the only blemish on his day. Regardless, few of us were sad to see Marquis go following that ‘06 season, but he gave the Cardinals over 600 innings in a three-year stretch, and gave the team at least a chance to win a whole lot of games in ‘04 and ‘05.

In the end, though, the centerpiece of the deal from the Cardinals’ side was Adam Wainwright, who represented the biggest divergence from business as usual for the Jocketty front office. Walt Jocketty’s Cardinals did not trade established players for young talent as a rule; trading for Wainwright at the time felt like it came completely out of left field. I was aware of Wainwright when the trade was made, but only in a peripheral sort of way. I did not follow the draft and minor leagues back then the way I do now, and in fact it was exceedingly difficult to do for pretty much anyone. Still, Wainwright was a former first-round pick (29th overall, 2000), and had been hyped up as the next Braves superstar pitcher in the first couple years of the new millenium.

The issue with Wainwright was this: when he was drafted, he was a tall, lanky high schooler who was ultra-projectable and already could touch 92 with his fastball. Given that 6’7” frame and present velocity, it was easy to look at high school Wainwright and add several ticks to his heater at full maturity. The curveball was always his best and most precocious pitch, and scouts projected Waino to throw 95-97 with a hammer curve once he filled out and grew up. He was a top 20 overall prospect in the game in 2001 and 2002, but fell to 48th according to Baseball America in 2003. The reason? Adam Wainwright in high school threw 90-92 and had tons of room to grow. Adam Wainwright in 2003 was 21 years old, had added about 30 pounds of good weight, and threw...90-92. His curveball was still awesome, he had added an intriguing slider to his repertoire, and he showed very good feel for the craft of pitching. The fastball just hadn’t jumped up the way so many scouts believed it would. Some pitchers just get their velocity early, and never really add to it.

That appearance of stagnation was what hurt Wainwright from 2002 to 2003, when he fell in the rankings. He moved up to Double A in ‘03, and while he more than held his own, his strikeout rate fell and he didn’t look nearly as dominant against high level competition as he had in A ball. What had once looked like a top of the rotation arm now looked more like an innings eater, a medium-velocity guy with a good breaking ball who didn’t miss quite as many bats as you wanted your ace to.

Wainwright made his major league debut in 2005, and it didn’t go well. I remember that first appearance; my brother, father, and I were heading back from a golf outing, and we were all piled into my dad’s Tacoma. Wainwright came in to pitch the ninth inning of a relatively meaningless game against the Mets as we were cutting across Lion’s Den road from wherever we played to get back over to Highway 21. I was excited about Wainwright’s debut, particularly seeing as how Anthony Reyes had made his own exceedingly exciting debut against the Brewers barely a month earlier. Things did not go well for Waino that day; he gave up a three-run homer to Victor Diaz that put the game out of reach, but the Cards were so far ahead in the division race that year it really didn’t matter.

We all know what happened next. Wainwright came up to the big leagues for good in 2006, serving first as a middle reliever, then a setup man, and finally as a closer late in the season and in the playoffs, then moved to the rotation permanently in 2007. It’s worth noting that ‘07 was Jocketty’s last year in control of the Cardinals; following that disastrous campaign, which had his fingerprints all over it just as surely as the glorious 2000-’06 run did, Jocketty was let go over the team’s poor performance and his own unwillingness to get on board with the club’s new direction toward drafting and development under Jeff Luhnow’s regime. Wainwright was essentially Jocketty’s parting gift to the club, and it is a bit sad that he did not get to reap the rewards of the brilliant trade he made back in 2003.

In acquiring Wainwright, the Cardinals bet on a pitching prospect with precocious command and feel for pitching, but whose fastball was not seen as top of the rotation worthy. The rest of his repertoire was so good that he ultimately turned out to be an ace, prevented from winning a Cy Young award only by the long shadow of the Clayton Kershaw era, but that outcome was not a guarantee at the time the Cards made that deal. He could very well have turned out more like Jeff Suppan, a wide repertoire control guy who lacked the strikeout punch to pitch at the top of a rotation. Put a pin in that for a minute, but just remember it.

Last offseason, the Cardinals made a deal with the Tampa Bay Rays that included Jose Martinez and the now-sorely-missed legend that is Randy Arozarena. In return, the Cardinals received a low-level minor league catcher with intriguing physical tools and a tall, lanky pitching prospect named Matthew Liberatore. So far, the deal has looked bad, due to Arozarena going supernova in the postseason this year and the Cards’ own outfielders failing to play up to expectations-slash-hopes. But that shouldn’t colour our view of the trade entirely just yet; let’s take a longer view on what the Cardinals really did in that deal.

Here’s what John Mozeliak and the front office tried to accomplish with the trade: they moved an extraneous piece in Jose Martinez, and a difficult fit in Randy Arozarena. Now, I will never stop saying that they absolutely moved the wrong outfielder in Arozarena, but it’s also very likely true that the Tampa Bay Rays would not have moved Liberatore, one of their top pitching prospects (and a top 50 overall prospect by some lists at the time), for one of the other outfield options the Cards were shopping. Mo and Co. did not move a player as accomplished as Drew in making this deal, but they were hoping to end up with a similar long-term asset.

In acquiring Liberatore, the Cardinals picked up a pitching prospect who had been drafted late in the first round of the 2018 draft, the year they selected Nolan Gorman. What’s interesting is that both Gorman and Liberatore were, by most sources, ranked much higher than their draft positions. Coming into the draft, Gorman was ranked twelfth overall by MLB Pipeline; the Cards nabbed him at nineteen when he slipped slightly over concerns about his position and contact ability. (The contact is still a concern, the position less so.) Liberatore fell all the way to sixteen despite being ranked fourth on the Pipeline big board; the Rays were thrilled to snatch him up, and I have it on fairly good authority that the Cardinals let out a huge collective groan when he want off the board so close to their position. Just saying. Why am I telling you this? Because if we believe those rankings were valuable at the time, the Cardinals ultimately now possess two of the top twelve players in that year’s draft, and they are on pace to reach the big leagues within the next two years. Maybe that means nothing, but I find it interesting to consider all the same.

The scouting report on Liberatore at the time of the draft was this: tall, lanky lefthander with plenty of room for projection, worked 89-93 with the fastball, great curveball, good feel for a changeup, and added a slider late in his high school career that needed work but was solid for being such a new pitch. The feel for pitching was what set Liberatore apart from his high school counterparts; he was the top high school pitching prospect in the nation that year not because his stuff was so overwhelming, but because he had precocious feel for pitching to go along with very good stuff.

Liberatore debuted in 2018 after the draft, thrown about 30 innings at two short season stops. He was good at both, but was also an eighteen year old getting his first taste of pro ball. You can be encouraged by the numbers in that situation, but should never read too very much into things. In 2019 he moved up to full season ball and spent the whole year in Low A, throwing just shy of 80 innings for the year. The Rays were careful with him, but not too careful, keeping him on a pitch count but also allowing him to make sixteen starts. It seemed like an appropriate level of caution for such an important asset.

The knock on Liberatore is this: his fastball just isn’t that great. He throws hard enough, of course, but it’s a two-seam fastball, and that style of heater is just out of fashion right now in the game. Everything has gone toward high four-seamers, trying to generate swings and misses up in the zone, and particularly for a pitcher whose best offering is a big curveball it would seem to make more sense to work up with the fastball rather than down. The movement on Liberatore’s two-seamer is solid, but it’s not a Dakota Hudson-style bowling ball that hitters can’t lift. In other words, you have a guy with a wide repertoire, great feel for pitching, and a fastball that may not be good enough for him to pitch at the top of a rotation.

To be fair, the similarities in scouting reports between Liberatore and Wainwright can be chalked up to coincidence. It could easily have been a big fastball guy with a limited arsenal or control issues the Cardinals acquired, but the philosophical approach to a long-term asset here is key. Looking at the Cards’ farm system, it is, as always, a solid unit. The depth is the thing (again, very often the case), but they do have a few real high-end talents as well. What the Cardinals lacked at the time of the Liberatore acquisition was a real long-term asset who looked likely to pitch toward the top of a rotation. Zack Thompson has a chance, but there’s a lot of relief downside there, I think. Genesis Cabrera looks like a long-term reliever, unfortunately. Johan Oviedo has an intriguing fastball, but the rest of his repertoire needs work. The Cards’ focus on drafting hitters toward the top of the draft the last few years (which really began in 2015 under Chris Correa), has transformed the top of the system. Depending whose list you like, the 2019 prospect rankings for the Cardinals had either seven or eight hitters in the top ten, and while Dakota Hudson is a very useful young pitcher, he is really nobody’s idea of a future ace, I don’t believe. What the Cardinals needed in the 2019-’20 offseason was an infusion of high-end pitching talent. That’s exactly what the front office hopes they got in Matthew Liberatore.

Of course, any long-term comparison of Liberatore to Wainwright is unfair at this point; Adam Wainwright has become a franchise icon over the past dozen years, while Liberatore is still just a promising pitching prospect with an ETA of 2022. The complete lack of 2020 performances keeps us from feeling nearly as good about basically any minor leaguers right now, but everything we’ve heard (and I mean that both publicly and what little I’ve heard through the grapevine that isn’t public knowledge), has been very positive regarding Liberatore’s development this summer. Liberatore was ranked 41st last offseason; it’s really impossible to tell where he’ll be ranked this year. My own team prospect list plans are very much up in the air right now, because I essentially have no idea what to do in terms of trying to rank guys whose most recent numbers come from 2019.

What one thinks of Liberatore long term is heavily influenced by how you feel about his fastball. Our own Big Jawn Mize, whose scouting opinion I value as much as anyone’s, is not a huge fan of the big lefty. He sees a middling fastball in a big-fastball era, and a heater that specifically doesn’t complement the curveball as well as a four-seamer would. He and I differ on this one, which is somewhat unusual, in that I believe Liberatore’s sinker may not look especially impressive, but hitters don’t seem to see it all that well and he generates ground balls as well as just about any pitcher in the minors. More to the point, I think the sum of Liberatore’s repertoire is so good that his fastball is not a significantly limiting factor, and I believe he does have a shot at being a number one or two starter down the road. Obviously, I could be wrong, but Liberatore has been one of my favourite pitching prospects since he was in high school, and I’m still very much on that bandwagon.

Back in 2003, Walt Jocketty made a deal for a tall righthander whose prospect luster had dimmed slightly, but who still had substantial upside. Jocketty didn’t last long enough in St. Louis to reap the benefits of his and his scouting department’s excellent call. With Matthew Liberatore, John Mozeliak and his front office made the same bet Jocketty did all those years ago, trading for a tall lefty with outstanding intangibles whose stuff was good, but not so overwhelming as to make him a slam dunk for the top of a rotation. They’re not the same players, obviously, but the patterns that recur over and over in history are worth paying attention to, I think. I think we can all agree it would be very nice if I or my successor are writing in 2037 about the Cardinals betting that their newest pitching acquisition, a tall, lanky righty from the moons of Jupiter (or maybe just Jupiter Florida), can live up to the legacy of Matt Liberatore, franchise icon of a decade and a half.