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Transaction Analysis 5/21/22: Cards Pull the Trigger on Gorman and Liberatore

MLB: Spring Training- St. Louis Cardinals-Workouts Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

The Cards recently announced the following transactions.

5/17/22: Added LHP Packy Naughton as the 27th man for today’s doubleheader and returned him to AAA Memphis after the second game.

5/20/22: Placed OF Tyler O’Neill on the 10-day IL (right shoulder impingement). Selected the contract of IF Nolan Gorman from AAA Memphis. To make room on the 40-man roster, transferred RHP Jack Flaherty from the 10-day IL to the 60-day IL. 40-man roster still full.

5/21/22: Optioned RHP Jake Walsh to AAA Memphis. Selected the contract of LHP Matthew Liberatore from AAA Memphis. To make room on the 40-man roster, designated RHP T.J. Zeuch for assignment. 40-man roster still full.

First, just a brief bit about the 27th man rule. It used to be that the extra player was only available for the second game of the doubleheader if the doubleheader resulted from the postponement of a game that was scheduled the previous day. That rule was changed last year to allow both clubs to agree, within one hour of the notice of postponement, that the extra man will be available for the first game. That agreement was apparently made, because the Cards announced on Twitter that Naughton would be available for both games of the club’s May 17th doubleheader with the Mets. And Naughton did indeed pitch in the first game. The rules require that clubs immediately return to 26 players immediately after the second game. Because Naughton had been optioned to AAA Memphis on May 14th and had not yet spent 15 days on option (remember effective May 2nd, pitchers now have to spend 15 days on option, as opposed to 10 days for position players), the Cards had no choice but to return him to AAA Memphis after the second game. That return is not considered another option, and the 15-day clock was not re-started for him.

Like Paul DeJong, Tyler O’Neill has not been hitting at all, slashing only .195/.256/.297 in 133 trips to the plate. He’s struck out over 31% of the time, but with only two homers and a .102 ISO, has not come close to bring the necessary power that would be required to accompany that strikeout rate. O’Neill was on the bench for four games between May 8th and May 15th. After playing both games of the May 17th doubleheader against the Mets, he sat the next two games. Now it has surfaced that O’Neill has a right shoulder impingement. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been a fan of the claim, “Well, I know I haven’t been hitting, but you see, I’ve really been hurt for the past week or so, and I haven’t been myself, and I’m just telling the club about it now.” I’m not making that accusation in this case, but I think it’s fair to wonder how long this has truly been going on. Although O’Neill last played on March 17th, I have not seen anything in the official channels to suggest that the club backdated O’Neill’s IL stint to May 18th, as would have been the club’s right.

O’Neill’s BABIP of .269 is way down from his career norms, so perhaps there’s some element of bad luck, but one thing stands out and that’s his performance against off-speed pitches, particularly changeups. O’Neill is actually whiffing less against sliders this season (36.4% compared with 44.6% in 2021), but his performance against changeups has been a disaster. O’Neill whiffed on 40.6% of changeups in 2021, he has whiffed on over half of the changeups he’s swung at this season. He’s also not hitting the ball hard when he does make contact. Whereas, O’Neill’s hard-hit rate against four-seam fastballs was 64% last season, that percentage has fallen to 35% so far this season. His hard-hit percentage against every pitch type has gone down, dramatically so in the case of almost every pitch-type of pitch he’s seen. The exceptions are his performance against sinkers (just a 5% decrease) and curveballs (4.1% decrease). And he’s hit half of the split-fingered fastballs he’s seen hard, whereas he didn’t hit any of them hard last season. But his hard-hit rate on the other pitches has gone down by at least 14%.

O’Neill is both swinging less and whiffing less in the aggregate than he did last season. He’s not nearly as aggressive on the first pitch as he has been in the past (27.1% first pitch swings, where he’s usually in the mid-to-high 30s), and his chase rate is right around where it was last season. There are a couple of things that stand out in his profile. One is that he’s making contact with 51.3% of the pitches he’s chased. That’s right around the mark he had in his awful 2020 season, and 8% higher than he had last season, when he had a good year at the plate. It’s also instructive to look at O’Neill’s Run Values as measured by Statcast’s Swing Take feature. Statcast divides the plate into four regions that it denominates Heart, Shadow, Chase and Waste. It then examines how often a player swung or took pitches in those regions, and then assigns run values based on those decisions. The league’s pitchers aren’t pitching O’Neill differently than they would anyone else. O’Neill is not out of line from league average in his swing or take decisions in any of the regions. He’s actually better than league average in the Chase zone in terms of swinging less and taking more. The problem is that when he’s swung at pitches in the Heart and Shadow zones, he hasn’t been able to do any damage. Statcast pegs him for -13 Swing Runs against +6 Take Runs, for an overall total of -7, and that’s because he’s -7 in the Heart region and -5 in the Shadow region. He’s actually performed better in the Chase and Waste zones.

Overall, O’Neill looks lost, his timing is off, and perhaps because he’s been hampered by his shoulder, he hasn’t been able to do anything when he’s got good pitches to drive. The IL stint will allow O’Neill to complete a minor league rehab assignment, which can function as a de facto option to Memphis or another affiliate. The club decided not to take this opportunity to recall Lars Nootbaar, who hurt himself in the outfield in Memphis chasing a home run ball in the 7th inning of the first game of a May 6th doubleheader. Although he was not placed on the injured list, he didn’t return to game action until May 18th.

Instead, the Cards decided to pull the trigger on Nolan Gorman and start his clock early. Gorman, the Cards’ first round draft choice in 2018, needs no introduction. Blocked at third base after the Nolan Arenado trade, he has played second base almost exclusively since a late June 2021 promotion to AAA Memphis. Gorman was among the minor league leaders with 15 homers for AAA Memphis this season, and slashed .308/.367/.677 in 143 trips to the plate. Gorman struck out 34% of the time this season so far, compared with only a 19.2% strikeout rate in 328 AAA plate appearances last season. He also had a .377 BABIP, a metric that excludes home runs, and that was his highest mark since his time in Rookie ball. With Paul DeJong struggling, the question of when the club was going to promote Gorman and move Edman to short has been percolating for a long time.

Initially reluctant to move Edman to short because of his gold glove defense at second, the club was concerned about weakening the defense for the Cards’ pitch-to-contact pitching staff. And Oli Marmol did not want to just abruptly move Edman to short without giving him time to adjust. The Cards played 10 games between the option of DeJong and Gorman’s promotion yesterday. Although the defense would certainly have been better in the aggregate with Edman at short, Brendan Donovan started six of those games at short, and Edman started all but one of those games at second base. There was some other extenuating circumstance with each of the four games where Donovan did not start at short. On May 14th, the club decided to give Arenado a partial rest by putting him at DH in a day game after a night game. Donovan started that game at third. The next day, Donovan sat on the bench against a left-handed starter. Arenado was rested again in the 2nd game of the May 17th doubleheader, and Donovan started at third. Donovan started at 2nd base for the May 18th game, when Oli Marmol rested Edman for the first time since May 2nd. Edmundo Sosa, who was activated from the COVID-19 Related IL on May 12th after a nine-day stint started at short for those four games. He’s been nursing a sore ankle.

Instead of just moving Edman to short and giving Donovan the 2nd base job or keeping Edman where he is and letting Edmundo Sosa have an extensive run at short like he got last season, the club has now committed to giving Gorman the bulk of the time at second base. The Cardinal staff expects Gorman to be at least average defensively there. Last night he didn’t whiff at all. I’ll be keenly interested in how he handles good changeups going forward. Last night, Pirates starter Zach Thompson had an inconsistent changeup and Gorman rocketed a hanging change for his first base-hit of the season. We will all be watching to see if Gorman’s strikeout issues continue or get even worse in the majors against better pitching.

With Gorman in the mix now at second base and O’Neill on the shelf, it will be interesting to see how the playing time shakes out for everyone. Instead of leaving Gorman in there against a left-hander, Marmol is sitting Gorman tonight against lefty Jose Quintana and is starting Edman at second and Sosa at short. Juan Yepez was recalled on May 3rd when Sosa went on the COVID-19 Related IL, and although he didn’t play that night because his plane arrived late in Kansas City from Memphis, he’s started every game since except for the second game of the May 17th doubleheader. It looks like he’s going to be the every day left fielder going forward. Albert Pujols has started at DH in every instance where the opposing team has started a left-hander. That doesn’t figure to change. Corey Dickerson looks to be a bench player exclusively, which is almost certainly not what the Cards had in mind when they signed him to a $5 million deal this past March. Donovan has had 54 major league plate appearances, and is walking more than he’s striking out, with a .463 OBP and a 20.4% walk rate, and he’s always shown a good batting eye in the minors. Last night, he was at DH against a righty. Will we see a full-time platoon with Donovan and Sosa at that position going forward? And will Marmol have what amounts to a Gorman/Sosa platoon, or will he let Gorman work out his kinks against lefties. With the exception of the 2019 season that Gorman split between what was then Low-A Peoria and High-A Palm Beach, he hasn’t hit lefties well and has had a fairly dramatic platoon split. Either way, Marmol has let the kids play.

With the rainout on May 16th and the doubleheader on May 17th, the Cards needed someone to make a spot start today to avoid having to pitch either Miles Mikolas or Steven Matz on only three days of rest. Instead of asking a taxed bullpen to pitch a bullpen game, the club decided to bring up top prospect Matthew Liberatore to make the start. Liberatore was the first round choice of the Tampa Bay Rays in 2018 and came over in the January 2020 Randy Arozarena trade. After spending 2020 at the Cardinals’ Alternate Training Site, the club rocketed him up to AAA Memphis for 2021, skipping both the High-A and AA levels. Due to the volatile nature of minor league transactions, there were only 14 “qualified pitchers” in the Triple-A East league last season. But at 21 years of age, Liberatore was second among qualified pitchers with 123 strikeouts, and third with 124.2 IP. While he allowed more homers than one might have liked, he kept his walk rate down, and it was a great season. This year so far, Liberatore has cut the homers and increased his strikeout rate by 5%. In his seven AAA starts, he didn’t have a game where he struck out fewer than five batters, and it was nice to see that in his last four starts, he’s gone six innings once and seven innings twice.

As nice as it is to see Liberatore get a shot, I think you can expect this to be a one-night stand in Pittsburgh. I think he’s going to get optioned tomorrow even if he completely shuts the Pirates down tonight. While I personally think that both Dakota Hudson and Jordan Hicks belong in the bullpen, I don’t believe that the Cards are there. While the manager and front office have proven this season that they’re not opposed to making changes, they haven’t reached the point yet where they’re going to give up on Hudson and Hicks as starters. Hudson has been a starter every year except his rookie year, and it wouldn’t make sense for the club to conduct a concerted campaign to put Hicks in the rotation, only to abandon it in the second month of the season. The club has added Angel Rondon to the taxi squad. That is still a thing this year, and it is only available on the road. The bullpen has been taxed by recently by the doubleheader, quick exits from Hudson, Hicks and Matz, and some general ineffectiveness on the part of some relievers. With Jake Walsh optioned to make room for Liberatore on the active roster, the club now has only seven relievers. I predict that the club will option Liberatore after tonight’s game and recall Rondon to give the club a full complement of 8 relievers. Rondon has had both walk and home run issues at times this season, but he can give the club some temporary extra long relief protection.

Walsh pitched a very fine first game for the Cards, striking out half of the eight batters he faced over two innings. But he couldn’t get anybody out in the May 18th game against the Mets, giving up one walk, hitting a guy and having his sinker rocked. Whether he deserved it or not, this is how the Memphis shuttle works. The Cards had a need for another pitcher, and Walsh has minor league options.

Liberatore takes the 40-man roster spot formerly occupied by T.J. Zeuch. Zeuch was the opening day starter for AAA Memphis and had a fair game, but since then he’s gotten destroyed. He’s allowed six homers over 19.1 IP and five starts. His opponents just hit everything. No one is probably bad enough to allow a .532 BABIP, but it’s indicative of just how hittable he’s been. I haven’t paid enough attention to the Memphis club to break down all of his starts or to figure out what is wrong with him, but Zeuch has not pitched since April 28th, and has not been put on an injured list. Zeuch has never been outrighted before, so he has no choice but to accept an outright assignment. But he will be eligible for automatic Rule 9 minor league free agency after this season is over, so 2022 may be the last year for Zeuch in the Cardinal organization.