To indulge in understatement, the Tampa Bay Rays and St. Louis Cardinals find themselves in entirely different straits right now. While both have historically thrived in their middle markets and have strong reputations for player development, those paths have forked in 2023.
The Rays going into Friday’s slate are a robust 30-9 on the season, which puts them on a frankly absurd 125-win pace for the full year. As well, they’re backing up that impressive record with an MLB-best plus-121 run differential (which means that, based on runs scored and runs allowed, their record should be 31-8). At the other, uglier end of the continuum are the Cardinals, who are 13-25 thus far in 2023; that’s their worst start to a season through 38 games since way back yonder in 1907. As a consequence, the Cardinals find themselves lodged in last place in the National League Central, at risk of missing the playoffs for the first time since 2018, and in line for their first losing season since 2007.
With those current particulars laid out, all we need now is something to link these two teams for purposes of writerly coherence. As in all matters, Randy Arozarena is there for those with nowhere left to turn.
The Rays’ hard-hitting outfielder and warrior-poet is looking better than ever so far in 2023. Through 37 games, he’s slashing .312/.394/.558 (168 OPS+) with nine home runs. He’s also on pace for a WAR of 6.6, which would dwarf his current career-best mark of 3.9 in 2021. We land on Arozarena not only because he’s been one of the very best players on baseball’s very best team so far but also because – please roll all available drums – he’s a former Cardinal.
This brings us back to Jan. 9, 2020, when the Cardinals sent Arozarena to the Rays as part of a swap that involved four players and a pair of draft picks and gives us cause to revisit it.
It went a little something like this:
- Rays get: OF Randy Arozarena, OF/1B José Martínez, 2020 supplemental first-round pick
- Cardinals get: LHP Matthew Liberatore, C Edgardo Rodriguez, 2020 supplemental second-round pick
(Necesssary aside: While teams cannot trade standard draft picks in MLB, they can trade supplemental selections from the Competitive Balance rounds, albeit not for cash.)
Strip away the supporting cast members, and this in essence becomes a trade of Arozarena for Liberatore, who was one of the top pitching prospects in baseball at the time. We’ll bury that particular lede, however, and look back on the lesser lights of the swap first.
The other players
Martínez at the time of the deal was a competent enough 31-year-old righty-righty first baseman who had spent some time at the corner outfield positions with St. Louis. In 2021, he gave the Rays slightly above-average plate production across 24 games until, in late August, he was sent to the Cubs in a minor waiver-period trade. Rodriguez, a catcher prospect signed out of Venezuela who had put up strong offensive numbers in the very lowest rungs of the Rays system, stalled out after the trade. He hasn’t played affiliated ball in 2023 after struggling at the complex-league level in 2022.
The draft picks
With the Cardinals’ supplemental-round pick in 2020 – the No. 37 overall pick – the Rays nabbed Arizona State shortstop Alika Williams. Across parts of three minor-league seasons, Williams has a slash line of .259/.337/.384 with 17 home runs in 194 games. This season, he’s put up quality offensive numbers at the Double-A level while, for the first time in his career, seeing more time at second base than short. Williams, now 24, probably doesn’t have the bat to be an impact player at the highest level, but he could fill a utility role with the Rays at some point.
As for the Cards’ side of what was essentially a pick swap, they took pitcher Tink Hence, who landed at No. 45 on CBS Sports’ Top 50 prospect list this year, thanks to a mid-90s fastball and a pair of promising secondaries in a curveball and changeup. He just came off the IL but his development has those in the game eyeing a spot in the St. Louis rotation.
From the Cards’ standpoint, Liberatore was the central piece of the deal. The Rays in 2018 drafted the lefty with the No. 16 overall pick out of an Arizona high school (coincidentally three picks before the Cardinals took Nolan Gorman). Most evaluators expected Liberatore to go a bit higher, perhaps in the top 10, but on draft day he slid to the Rays. Prior to the 2019 season, Liberatore began popping up on the various and sundry top-100 prospect lists, and he’s been a steady presence ever since.
Liberatore cracked the majors last season, but he struggled across seven starts and two relief appearances for the Cardinals: a 5.97 ERA with 18 unintentional walks in 34 2/3 innings. That came after a similarly disappointing 22 starts at Triple-A Memphis. This season, however, Liberatore has shown signs of leveling up. He’s added a bit of fastball velocity, and he’s improved command of his curve while at the same time adding spin. In seven starts back at Memphis in 2023, Liberatore has a 2.77 ERA with 51 strikeouts against 15 walks in 39 innings. Still on the 40-man roster, he’s almost certainly the next man up should the Cardinals’ rotation suffer an injury or continue to be ineffective. Just 23 years of age, Liberatore has a real shot to be a good starting pitcher at the big-league level.
There’s no doubting the accomplishments of the star of the trade thus far. Originally signed by the Cardinals out of Cuba back in 2016, Arozarena put up strong numbers at the higher levels of the system and after a particularly impressive 2019 – including a strong showing in 19 games for St. Louis – he vaulted up prospect lists just in time to get traded.
The Cardinals at the time had a fairly crowded outfield situation with Harrison Bader and Dexter Fowler entrenched in two spots, and names like Tyler O’Neill and Lane Thomas were clamoring for time. As well, Dylan Carlson was also soon to be ready for the majors. That surfeit – plus, perhaps, Arozarena’s decision to live-stream a profane speech from manager Mike Shildt during the 2019 playoffs – led to his being made available in trade.
Straightaway, he realized his potential with the Rays. They called him up late in the COVID-abbreviated 2020 season, and down the stretch in September he clouted seven home runs in 21 games. That was mere prelude for the postseason, as Arozarena during the Rays’ drive to the pennant batted .377/.442/.831 with 10 home runs (!) in 20 games. Along the way, he was voted ALCS MVP. While the Rays fell to the juggernaut Dodgers in the World Series, Arozarena more than did his part, putting up a sky-scraping OPS of 1.234 – higher than his ALCS figure – with three home runs in his first Fall Classic.
A 20-20 season followed in 2021, and Arozarena – in the somewhat unusual situation of still having rookie status intact even after achieving postseason heroics – was the overwhelming choice for AL Rookie of the Year laurels. Similar excellence from Arozarena followed in 2022, and thus far in 2023 he’s been better than ever. It all adds up to a career OPS+ of 134 and a WAR of 9.5 over parts of five seasons. Arozarena has proved himself a top-tier hitter over sample of more than 1,500 plate appearances, and he’s not eligible for free agency until after the 2026 season. In other words, the expectation is that he’s going to continue being a lineup fulcrum for the best team in baseball for some time.
The verdict so far
Obviously, this trade has been a huge win for the Rays thus far. Arozarena is an All-Star-grade performer (although he’s still puzzlingly in search of his first All-Star selection), and it’s quite conceivable that he’ll nab some AL MVP votes this year. He’s got multiple years of team control remaining, so the reasonable expectation is that the Rays’ trade advantage will grow.
That said, all is not grim for the Cardinals. Liberatore this season is looking like he’ll be a real contributor to the major-league rotation and perhaps very soon. On a lesser level, Hence also has the potential to be a valuable starter if he continues his progression. St. Louis will probably never come out as the winners of this trade, unless Liberatore achieves something near ace-dom, but they could ride this swap out of “disaster” status.
As for the Rays and Arozarena, they probably don’t care about all that. They’re more preoccupied with another deep October run and quite possibly the first belt and title in franchise history. If that comes to pass, you can bet the leading light of the January 2020 trade will have much to do with it.