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Cardinals trade Jose Martinez, Arozarena to Rays for standout lefty prospect, and leave open other options

Cardinals trade Jose Martinez, Arozarena to Rays for standout lefty prospect, and leave open other options

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Matthew Liberatore

Matthew Liberatore, 6-foot-6 lefthander, from the Tampa Bay Rays. Photo by Austin Anthony/Bowling Green Daily News

In a compelling, four-player trade that immediately reduced their excess in the outfield while also adding a top prospect for the future, the Cardinals invited questions about what they’ll do next to address the present.

The Cardinals acquired 20-year-old pitcher Matthew Liberatore, one of the best young lefthanders in the minors, and a minor-league catcher from Tampa Bay on Thursday night in exchange for outfielders Jose Martinez, the Cardinals’ top bat off the bench, and Randy Arozarena. The two teams also swapped competitive balance picks in the upcoming draft.

Liberatore, the 16th overall pick in the 2018 draft, is a friend and former teammate of Cardinals’ prospect Nolan Gorman, and this fall Baseball America ranked the 6-foot-6 pitcher as the fifth-best lefty prospect. He could start the year as a top 30 prospect overall.

This winter the Cardinals have sought to gain clarity in the outfield by using trades to distill their depth, and also improve their stockpile of lefthanded talent. They did both with one move.

They also opened up the roster for other opportunities.

The Cardinals remain in conversation with outfielder Marcell Ozuna about a reunion, and during an interview in the Dominican Republic this week the cleanup hitter reiterated his interest in returning to the team. Texas, Atlanta, and Cincinnati earlier this offseason had been interested in the outfielder. A stronger, richer offer from the Cardinals would make the decision for him, according to a source. The Cardinals continue to weigh cost and clutter vs. certainty.

In the official announcement of Thursday’s trade, John Mozeliak, president of baseball operations, included a comment on how the trade “helps us create more opportunity in the outfield for players like Tyler O’Neill, Lane Thomas, and others.” The others would be lefthanded hitting Justin Williams and Dylan Carlson, a switch-hitting top prospect the Cardinals are eager to audition for a role during spring training.

All winter the Cardinals have said they want to see what that group of young, cost-controlled players would do with available at-bats — at-bats that would be less for them if Ozuna, 29, returned. But the Cardinals then wouldn’t have an open question at cleanup.

The Cardinals have had a longstanding interest in Colorado third baseman Nolan Arenado, who the Rockies are entertaining trade talks about. It is unclear how aggressively the Cardinals have acted on that interest, or if they remain hesitant to take on Arenado’s cost. In past discussions with Colorado, the Cardinals have found the asking price to be high — and Arenado’s contract offers a series of hurdles for any interested team.

One of the game’s best all-around players, Arenado, 28, has a no-trade clause and an opt-out after two seasons. He would have the deciding role in any trade, and a new team would have to renegotiate that opt-out or welcome that uncertainty. The entirety of his contract, signed a year ago, guarantees him $260 million, including a $35 million salary for the next five seasons.

The Rockies are “intrigued” by the Cardinals as a potential trade partner, reported. Liberatore would add to a handful of appealing, young players like Gorman, Andrew Knizner, and Zack Thompson, or big-leaguers like Dakota Hudson, O’Neill, and slick-fielder Harrison Bader.

Liberatore, drafted out of a Phoenix-area high school, was 6-2 with a 3.10 ERA in 16 games (15 starts) for the Rays’ Class A affiliate. At 19, he struck out 76 and walked 31 in 78 1/3 innings. Baseball America lauded his fastball (it zips at 92-95 mph), his budding breaking pitches, and called him “as safe a bet as a teen pitching prospect can be.”

The catcher acquired with Liberatore, 19-year-old Edgardo Rodriguez, upgrades the Cardinals’ depth chart at his position as well. Signed out of Venezuela in July 2017, Rodriguez hit .330 with a .492 slugging percentage, six homers, and 19 strikeouts in 191 at-bats for the Rays’ Dominican Summer League team in 2018. This past year he had a .400 average in 25 at-bats for the Rays’ Gulf Coast League team.

Martinez, 31, drew interest from DH-seeking Tampa Bay during the season, just a few months after signing a two-year deal with the Cardinals. He hit .269 this past season as the Cardinals’ leading pinch-hit option, and in the past three seasons with the Cardinals he hit .296 with a .819 OPS but no clear position defensively.

Arozarena has been a spark plug since signing with the Cardinals, and at Class AAA Memphis in 2019 he hit .358 with a 1.028 OPS. Arozarena was one of the young outfielders the Cardinals mentioned when they insisted they wanted to clear playing time for an outfielder or two to emerge. By mid-January they have traded three righthanded-hitting outfielders from the big-league roster. In addition to Thursday’s deal, the Cardinals swapped Adolis Garcia for cash from Texas.

Not one of the deals done so far has added a piece for the 2020 team or a hitter to a lineup that struggled throughout 2019 before cratering in the National League championship series.

Thursday’s trade did leave two spots newly open on the 40-man roster.

Gant, Cardinals near deadline

The Cardinals and reliever John Gant have until late Friday morning to agree on his salary for the coming season or the team is determined to argue its offer and let an arbiter decide.

Gant, 27, is the Cardinals’ lone arbitration-eligible player on the current roster, and the two sides have until 11 a.m. St. Louis time to settle on terms for a 2020 contract. Discussions between the team and his agent were expected to continue into Friday morning, and if they do not agree each side will submit a salary figure to the union and commissioner’s office. The Cardinals, like most teams, have adopted a “file and trial” approach the past two winters. After nearly two decades of avoiding arbitration hearings, that policy took them into a hearing this past winter with starter Michael Wacha. The team won.

As the Cardinals’ setup man to start the season, Gant grabbed 11 wins and struck out 60 in 66 1/3 innings. His success eroded late in the season and he was not on the postseason roster. Gant made $571,300 this past season and could see his salary nearly triple for the coming year.

Photos: Jose Martinez with the Cards

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