Tampa Bay Rays, St. Louis Cardinals deal holds intrigue for both sides

Randy Arozarena made a big impression following his late-season call up in St. Louis. (Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images)
Randy Arozarena made a big impression following his late-season call up in St. Louis. (Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images) /

The St. Louis Cardinals traded outfielders Jose Martinez and Randy Arozarena to the Tampa Bay Rays for MiLB pitcher Matthew Liberatore. What does the trade mean?

The deal announced Thursday between the Tampa Bay Rays and St. Louis Cardinals might be strategically meaningful for both sides.

The Tampa Bay Rays acquired outfielders Jose Martinez and Randy Arozarena from the Cardinals in exchange for pitching prospect Matthew Liberatore and catching prospect Edgardo Rodriguez. The teams also exchanged competitive balance draft picks.

When you ask what’s in it for both teams, the answers are potentially fascinating.

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Arozarena and Martinez will both be given opportunities to win prominent places in the Tampa Bay Rays lineup. Martinez, the son of former major leaguer Carlos Martinez, is a solid hitter without a position whose offensive skills were wasted in the National League. He’ll take his lifetime .298 average and .821 OPS to Tampa’s DH slot with only occasional forays into the outfield necessary.

His offensive skill set makes him a functional replacement for Tommy Pham, who was traded to San Diego for Hunter Renfroe. Martinez’s 2019 slash line was .269/.363/.458, not far different from Pham’s .273/.369/.450.

Martinez hit a home run every 37.3 plate appearances, Pham delivered one every 31.1 plate appearances. Martinez has a career 119 OPS+, just seven percentage points lower than Pham.

For the present, Arozarena is designated as the Rays’ fourth outfielder. But observers began salivating over his skills late last season when he batted .300 with a .891 OPS in 19 games following his August debut. At Triple-A Memphis, he hit .358 with a 1.028 OPS. It would be no surprise at all if he contended for a starting spot in left or right in 2020.

Liberatore is perhaps an even more intriguing player. A left-hander, he went 6-2 with a 3.10 ERA in 15 starts for Tampa’s Class A team. Within minutes of the trade’s announcement, MLB.com designated the 20-year-old as the No. 3 prospect in the entire St. Louis system.

But since rotation pitching is an obvious Cardinal strength – St. Louis will open the season with Jack Flaherty, Miles Mikolas, Dakota Hudson and Adam Wainwright atop the staff – the team’s interest in such a highly rated prospect who is not viewed as major league ready raised additional speculation. Might Liberatore’s ultimate value be as a trade chip for something the Cards really covet, namely a mid-order hitter they could snag in a trade?

The most frequently mentioned suspect: Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado. Just last season he signed an 8-year, $260 million deal with Colorado. But recently Aerenado was quoted as wondering about the team’s commitment to winning, raising speculation about his interest in waiving a no-trade clause.

The bottom line is that rumors abound in Colorado about the availability of Arenado. The Cardinals currently project to start the 2020 season with Tommy Edman as their third baseman. Edman batted .304 as a rookie, but he is defensively versatile, having started games at five positions last season. With a projected $162 million opening-day payroll, St. Louis probably also has the payroll flexibility to take on the $35 million commitment Arenado would represent for as long as he’s in St. Louis.

That, by the way, might not be the full length of the remaining seven years of the deal since it contains a player opt-out following the 2021 season.

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Of course, there’s no assurance that the St. Louis Cardinals could flip Liberatore – presumably as part of a package – to Colorado for Arenado. But even if they can’t, that leaves them with an intriguing young pitching prospect who maybe major league ready about the time Wainwright, entering his age 38 season, is ready to call it quits.