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Quick Hits: Liberatore, Herrera, Palacios

St. Louis Cardinals v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

As the Cardinals waddle through the last month of the season, they don’t have anything to play for in the standings. The remaining few weeks of games, though, could have an impact on the standings next season. Three players have been on my mind over the last week – Matthew Liberatore, Ivan Herrera, and Richie Palacios. Here are some quick hits on each.

1. Matthew Liberatore – Impact Reliever?

Last week in our Q&A podcast episode, one of our faithful readers asked: “Has there been any consideration of moving Matthew Liberatore to the bullpen?” Initial reporting on Liberatore’s return indicated he would likely pitch as a reliever for the rest of the season, barring an injury or other situation with the rotation. So far, that has been the case and I personally think that’s a good decision.

Back in August, I wrote about Liberatore’s pitch mix, what he is having success with, and how the Cardinals are trying to force him to do what he can’t do well while deemphasizing what he can do well. Liberatore has a lot of variance with both the velocity and movement on both his fastball and sinker. He seems to suffer from a lack of competitive intensity — or maybe an excess of competitive anxiety — that leads to inconsistent mechanics. What he does have is good spin and movement on his breaking pitches and routinely gets solid whiff rates from his curve and slider. The Cardinals have focused on fixing his fastball. He continues to throw it at a high rate. He continues to struggle. Why not focus on his breaking pitches?

I’ve speculated since that Liberatore could do better by spending time in the bullpen. A longer run of shorter outings against lineups that aren’t stacked with righties could allow him to refine his breaking offerings, build more consistent velocity on his fastball, and give him and the club a confidence boost that could propel him to more consistency.

So far so good for Liberatore the reliever. As of Tuesday morning, he has two outings for a total of 2.2 innings. He’s faced 9 batters. He hasn’t given up a hit. He’s only walked one. And has 4 K’s. That’s a 13.50 K/9 ratio. His ground ball percentage is 100%.

Obviously, that is a tiny sample size, but if you’re looking for any positives in what has been a season full of negatives, there you go!

In his first outing, Liberatore threw six 4-seam fastballs and his velocity was up 1.8 mph to 95.8. That extra velocity played and he generated a 33% whiff rate on the pitch. He also threw two sliders – the pitch I want to see more of – and saw a 2.7 mph increase in velocity with a 142 rpm increase in spin. Velocity and spin were up on his one curve and changeup. Better stuff meant better results and he ripped through the Braves in just 12 pitches over 1.1 innings.

The Cardinals tested him by throwing him again the next day against the Reds; I doubt Liberatore has ever thrown in back-to-back days. His stuff wasn’t as good. It took him 27 pitches to get through 1.1 innings, but he did rack up three K’s and worked around a walk.

Liberatore’s 4-seam rate was just under 50%. His velocity was slightly up relative to his yearly average at 94.9 mph. Spin was slightly up. As expected, his whiff% on his fastball ticked down a hair from the day before as he lost velocity but it was still better than his norms.

Liberatore threw six curves and five sliders – that’s a combined 41% breaking ball rate, which is closer to what I want to see. Batters only swung at one breaking pitch, and no one made contact.

What can we take away from those two outings? Not that much so far. Pitching out of the pen does help his fastball play up. It has not necessarily led to a dramatic shift in his breaking ball percentage, but he does seem to be throwing his slider more frequently. That’s a good thing.

What’s encouraging are the results. A month of good outings from the bullpen could go a long way to helping him settle down and settle in as a major league arm.

Update: I watched his outing Tuesday night and liked what I saw. He did not have his best stuff. He lost command of his breaking pitches and was struggling to keep batters off his fastball. His 4-seam velocity was up over 96 again and he threw a ton of sliders. Only one curve, which was odd and he wasted it below the zone. Still, he got outs without his best control. That’s something Liberatore hasn’t been able to do very often but it’s a must for a wanna-be starting pitcher.

2. Where is Ivan Herrera?

Roster expansion rules have changed with the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. In years past, teams could add any player from their 40-man roster to their active roster. We frequently saw teams use that as an opportunity to give MLB service time to minor league vets or test out prospects who are in the mix for the next season. Teams are now limited to just two additions.

Still, with a 28-man roster, there should be space for Ivan Herrera. Herrera is one of the better MLB-ready catching prospects in baseball. He’s crushing AAA in his return to the level for his age-23 season. His current line is .296/.444/.493 for Memphis. That comes with a 19.1% walk rate, a .197 ISO, and a 143 wRC+. Yes, he has a .365 BABIP, but that points as much to his hitting prowess as it does to hitting luck at that age in AAA.

His hitting translated to the majors in his brief callup this year. He only has 26 MLB PAs on the season but he’s turned that into a .367 wOBA and a 134 wRC+.

Simply put, Herrera has had a monster year and somehow he’s fallen under the radar. The signing of Willson Contreras, his early-season controversy, and Andrew Knizner’s well-publicized leadership and hitting rise have dominated the backstop narratives. All Herrera has done is hit.

So, where is he? Herrera fits well as a third wheel in the Walker/Winn era of Cardinals prospects. He was and should still be a top 100 prospect on many prospect lists. With his walk rate and above-average power, plus developing defense that’s already at least average, he has all the markings of a good starting catcher. He could even make an All-Star game or two.

The Cardinals have created space for Jordan Walker, displacing proven outfielders early in the season to get him on the field before he was ready. Their aggressiveness and commitment to him cost them for months as Walker was mistake-prone in the outfield and overmatched at the plate. He’s still barely over replacement level. But he’s learned and grown as a player. Now, with 5 months of MLB time under his belt, Walker’s offensive potential is showing up and his defense is starting to even out.

The Cardinals brought Masyn Winn up from AAA the moment that he would still retain his rookie eligibility for 2024. Winn is seeing firsthand how difficult it is to hit major league pitching but he’s starting to show increased signs of comfort at the plate.

Simply put, young players need time. As much time as a team can give to them to learn what it means to play at the MLB level.

Ivan Herrera is not getting that time right now. I think I know why but I asked Jeff Jones from the Belleville News-Democrat to confirm my suspicions. Sure enough, the Cardinals don’t feel that they can give Herrera consistent playing time in StL. He can get that in AAA. So, he’s staying down, likely th

I don’t get it. Herrera’s performance demonstrates that he’s learned what he can from AAA. What he still lacks in his development can only happen at the MLB level. He needs to gain the respect and trust of the major league pitching staff and the coaches. He needs to learn how MLB pitchers will pitch to him over more than 20-something PAs. He needs time to make adjustments and to struggle when the pressure isn’t on him to perform.

The Cardinals admitted defeat back at the end of July. They’ve had a month and a half to get the players that are likely to be a significant part of their return to contention in 2024 into their lineup gaining experience. They’ve done exactly that with Walker and Winn. Liberatore, too.

Why not do the same with Herrera? He could accomplish more with three weeks on the club even if all he does is hang around with Contreras, Knizner, and the pitchers than he will with 2 weeks of AAA games. It seems likely that he’ll struggle for a few months next year as he works through the growing pains of becoming an MLB’er. I would much rather those months happen now when the club has little to play for than next year when every game could count.

3. Is Richie Palacios Going to be a Thing?

Maybe so. With Carlson, Nootbaar, Edman, and O’Neill missing at various times with injuries, Richie Palacios found his way to the major leagues and into a prominent role late this summer. As of Tuesday afternoon, he’s appeared in 15 games for a total of 41 PAs. It’s a tiny sample but he’s made the most of his chance. Palacios has a .290/.325/.421 slash line. That’s good for an above average wRC+ all while playing center field.

Update: After two homers last night, all of those stats will be way up!

Palacios is 26. He’s been around, working his way through the minor leagues since 2018 as a former third round pick. He suffered a torn labrum in ’19. Then COVID happened in 2020. That was two lost seasons.

Palacios came roaring back in ’21 with a 142 wRC+ in AA and a 139 in AAA. He doesn’t have a ton of power but succeeded based on an incredibly strong ability to generate walks. His BB% was 11.7% in AA and 17.2% in AAA. The next year he took half a step back, producing a 121 wRC+ and a 11.7 BB% rate in his AAA return. But he did earn a promotion to the majors with the Indians.

This year, the Memphis Redbirds needed a center fielder. The Cardinals are always looking for guys who will walk. Palacios struggled to a 77 wRC+ in AAA with the Indians despite a 15.2% walk rate. They gave up on him too early and the Cardinals were able to nab him. He has since bounced back to a 126 wRC+ for Memphis with a 16.4% walk rate.

Palacios can play center field fairly well. He has decent speed and athleticism but was mostly an infielder for the Indians. He could probably play 2B in a pinch, though he hasn’t done that for either Memphis or StL. He can walk. And walk. And walk. And walk.

Could the Cardinals use a cheap backup outfielder who can play center, play a little second, generate some power, and walk like crazy? Absolutely they could! And not just when they are filling time until next season.

Palacios is not going to be a starter but he could be a .230-.255 hitter with a 10-13% walk rate and a slugging percentage that hovers around .400. That’s a guy who could find his way onto a roster as a left-handed utility outfielder with options remaining. I’m not sure I would have any qualms about him being the defacto 5th outfielder next year shuffling between Memphis and St. Louis until Victor Scott or Mike Antico force themselves into the picture. That’s the same role Oscar Mercado filled earlier in the season. The club always needs a player like that.