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Rays trade a top pitching prospect for immediate offensive help

Matthew Liberatore, on the rise since being a 2018 first-round draft pick by Tampa Bay, is sent to the St. Louis Cardinals for first baseman/DH Jose Martinez and outfielder Randy Arozarena.
Matthew Liberatore, a 6-foot-6 left-hander drafted No. 16 overall in 2018 by the Rays, heads to the Cardinals in a six-player trade. Liberatore is considered the No. 3 prospect in the Rays' minor-league system.
Matthew Liberatore, a 6-foot-6 left-hander drafted No. 16 overall in 2018 by the Rays, heads to the Cardinals in a six-player trade. Liberatore is considered the No. 3 prospect in the Rays' minor-league system. [ Times ]
Published Jan. 9, 2020
Updated Jan. 10, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — This time, you can’t argue about the Rays’ intentions.

Their four-player trade with the Cardinals on Thursday was not meant for some indeterminate date in the future. It was not meant to reduce payroll. It was not meant to do anything but strengthen a team looking to build on a 96-win season.

Feel free, however, to argue about the wisdom of the trade.

The Rays gave up top left-handed pitching prospect Matthew Liberatore and low-minors catcher Edgardo Rodriguez for Cardinals first baseman/DH Jose Martinez and Cuban outfielder Randy Arozarena. Tampa Bay also received a Compensation A draft pick (No. 38 overall) for a Compensation B pick (No. 66).

“There’s risks. There’s outcomes with Matthew that you could always look back and play the what-if games,’’ general manager Erik Neander said. “But we believe Randy, the way he fits our club and the upside he possesses and his timeline basically being on the major-league doorstep, made this move worthwhile. And certainly with Jose in there and how he fits our club in the immediate future.’’

It was a bold move in that Liberatore appears to have the highest ceiling of any of the players involved.

Baseball America lists him as the No. 3 prospect in Tampa Bay’s system — behind Wander Franco and Brendan McKay — and he’s widely considered among the top 35-45 prospects in minor-league baseball.

In short, he’s the kind of pitcher most teams covet.

But the Rays are in a unique situation. Their farm system is as loaded as any franchise, and their major-league team is a potential World Series contender. Given their excess of prospects, they were willing to gamble to fill some immediate holes on the big-league club.

And, while Martinez, 31, is the more recognizable return, the Rays consider Arozarena, 24, a potential building block in the outfield.

A defector from Cuba at age 19, Arozarena was signed by St. Louis for $1.25 million in 2016. His first two pro seasons were solid, but he broke out in 2019, hitting .358 with 12 homers in 246 at-bats in Triple A. Baseball America moved him from St. Louis’ No. 12 prospect to No. 10 after the season.

Arozarena can play all three outfield positions, which solves the immediate problem of a backup centerfielder and perhaps a long-term solution for Kevin Kiermaier’s eventual replacement.

Martinez is a clear upgrade for the Rays. He’s a lifetime .298 hitter but, more importantly, he crushes left-handed pitching, with a career .331 average and a .570 slugging percentage against lefties.

Martinez’s production slipped last year to .269 with 10 homers, but the Rays believe that has more to do with not having a defined role in St. Louis. In Tampa Bay, he will likely platoon as a right-handed designated hitter.

“In a pursuit of upgrading our lineup against lefthanded pitching, he’s someone that really fits us well. We believe the numbers that he put up last year are not representative as to who he is as a hitter and believe he is closer to what we saw the two prior years,’’ Neander said. “By all accounts, a wonderful teammate, a wonderful leader in the clubhouse, can really bring a group together and that’s something important as we’re looking for ways to round out our club.’’

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Martinez is under contract for $2.125 million in 2020, which potentially makes him the team’s seventh highest-paid player, and is not eligible for free agency until 2023.

So, yes, the Rays are a better team today. Potentially, much better.

But there is no doubt the price was high.

Liberatore, 20, went 6-2 with a 3.10 ERA in 15 starts at low-A Bowling Green last season and has a 2.59 ERA with 113 strikeouts and 44 walks in 111 innings in his pro career.

A 6-foot-6 left-hander with a fastball in the low-to-mid 90s, Liberatore is typically projected as a future second or third starter in a rotation.

Rodriguez, 19, hit .338 with six home runs in 216 at-bats in the Dominican Summer League and the Gulf Coast League the past two years.

Today is arbitration-filing deadline

The clock is winding down on contract negotiations for the Rays and five arbitration-eligible players.

The team and players have until noon today to either come to an agreement or exchange salary figures for arbitration. Technically, an agreement could still be reached after figures are submitted, but the Rays have a long-standing policy of ending negotiations once the arbitration process begins.

Pitchers Tyler Glasnow and Oliver Drake, along with outfielder Hunter Renfroe and infielder Daniel Robertson are eligible for arbitration. Pitcher Chaz Roe avoided arbitration with a one-year deal for $2,185,200, ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported late Thursday.

The Rays avoided arbitration with three players last year with last-minute deals. Outfielder Tommy Pham was the only player who entered the process, and he won his hearing for a $4.1 million deal.

Outfielder Guillermo Heredia, who was non­tendered by the Rays, reportedly signed a one-year deal Thursday with the Pirates.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.