One hot summer in Memphis convinced Rays this was a deal worth making

Randy Arozarena’s breakout season in Triple-A raised his profile from a part-time major league player to a core part of the Rays’ future in the Matthew Liberatore trade.
St. Louis Cardinals' Randy Arozarena (83) is congratulated by teammates in the dugout after scoring during the fourth inning of a spring training baseball game against the Washington Nationals on Feb. 26, 2019, in West Palm Beach.
St. Louis Cardinals' Randy Arozarena (83) is congratulated by teammates in the dugout after scoring during the fourth inning of a spring training baseball game against the Washington Nationals on Feb. 26, 2019, in West Palm Beach. [ JEFF ROBERSON | Associated Press ]
Published Jan. 10, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — A year ago, the Rays do not make this trade. They don’t even consider it.

Not when the cost is a left-handed pitcher with good size, a great arm and big-league glory ahead of him.

So what changed in 2019?

Randy Arozarena’s future profile. And maybe Tampa Bay’s growing confidence in being a contender.

The Rays agreed to trade elite pitching prospect Matthew Liberatore and a low-minors catcher to the Cardinals on Thursday in exchange for Arozarena and first baseman/designated hitter Jose Martinez, as well as a swap of compensatory draft picks.

Martinez, 31, is exactly who he appears to be. A hired hitter who should get 400 or so at-bats, mostly against left-handed pitching and mostly as a designated hitter. And for a team that now knows it can play deep into October, this was a necessary purchase.

The Rays also liked the idea of Martinez’s veteran presence in the clubhouse after parting ways with Tommy Pham and Avisail Garcia.

Related: Rays trade a top pitching prospect for immediate offensive help

“We have high expectations for our major-league club, not just in 2020 but for the next few seasons. (This) trade raised those expectations," general manager Erik Neander said. “Accumulating talent … is important, but it’s just as important to time up talent. To sync it up in a way that enables an extended run.

“Jose will step in and fill an acute need in 2020, and we expect Randy to be a core player that increases the chances of this group having a multi-year run."

As much as Martinez helps in the near term, it was going to take a lot more to pry Liberatore loose from Tampa Bay. And during one torrid summer, Arozarena convinced the Rays he was worth it.

Signed after fleeing Cuba in 2015 and spending a year in Mexico, Arozarena, 24, had two decent seasons in the Cardinals farm system in 2017-18. Still, he was commonly viewed as a potential fourth outfielder in the majors. Coming into 2019, he wasn’t even among the top 10 prospects in the St. Louis system.

His athleticism was off the charts, but Arozarena wasn’t particularly polished as a ballplayer. Too many swing-and-misses, too much unbridled energy. He was on Tampa Bay’s radar, but not in any meaningful way.

But after a broken hand in spring training delayed the start of his 2019 season, Arozarena suddenly looked like a potential five-tool player by mid-July at Triple-A Memphis. The speed was always there, but now he was hitting for more power (.571 slugging percentage) and average (.344). His strikeout rate dropped and his walk percentage grew. A converted second baseman, he was also growing more comfortable with his jumps and instincts in centerfield.

Related: Rays add depth at catcher with former Miami Hurricanes player Chris Herrmann

The question is whether this was the beginning of a new reality for Arozarena, or if it was a peak season for a serviceable player. The Rays, clearly, are betting that Arozarena is more Austin Meadows than Guillermo Heredia.

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“Our staff saw adjustments that led to more contact and more impact," Neander said. “Usually there’s give-and-take between contact and impact, but that Randy improved both in 2019 gave us confidence to raise him to an everyday profile that contributes on both sides of the ball."

This doesn’t necessarily mean Arozarena will make the big-league club out of spring training. He still only has 23 plate appearances in the majors, and the Rays are already looking at an outfield of Meadows, Kevin Kiermaier and Hunter Renfroe. Delaying his big league service clock also has to be a consideration for a franchise that needs to hold on to low-salaried players as long as possible.

But even if he is an injury replacement or summer callup, the Rays can make the argument that their offense has been upgraded in the offseason.

It’s true, Pham, Garcia and Travis d”Arnaud take 1,549 plate appearances with a .345 on-base percentage and 57 home runs out the door with them. But Martinez and Renfroe, by themselves, combined for 43 home runs last season. Add Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, who averaged 35 home runs a year for the past five years in Japan, and the Rays potentially have even greater fence-clearing possibilities in 2020.

And if Willy Adames, Brandon Lowe and Meadows — all of whom are under 25 — continuing growing as hitters, the Rays could go from a league-average offense in 2019 to a slightly better version in 2020.

“Some of the names are different," Neander said, “but we’re pretty happy with the upside of this group."

John Romano can be reached at Follow @romano_tbtimes.