Randy Arozarena Jose Martinez Matthew Liberatore

Why the Cardinals traded Randy Arozarena to Tampa Bay

When the Cardinals traded outfielder Randy Arozarena, Jose Martinez, and a supplemental first-round pick for pitching prospect Matthew Liberatore, catching prospect Edgardo Rodriguez, and a supplemental second-round pick on January 9, 2020, it looked like a no-lose scenario for St. Louis.

Given the rumors swirling around the possible availability of Rockies all-star third baseman Nolan Arenado and the breathless scouting reports surrounding Liberatore, the Cardinals could either flip Liberatore to help acquire Arenado or hold onto Liberatore as a key piece of their future rotation. Either way, it seemed that the Cardinals had given up relatively little in comparison.

Then Arozarena became a key power hitter on a World Series team, an American League Rookie of the Year Award winner, and an all-star.

After defecting from Cuba in 2015, Arozarena signed with the Cardinals as an international free agent the following year for $1.25 million. The 22-year-old Arozarena split his first season with the Cardinals organization in 2017 between High-A Palm Beach and Double-A Springfield, batting a solid but not spectacular .266/.346/.437 with 11 homers and 49 RBIs in 490 plate appearances.

In 2018, Arozarena started the season back in Springfield, where he hit .396 with seven homers and 21 RBIs in just 102 plate appearances. He spent the rest of the season in Triple-A Memphis, where he faced growing pains, batting just .232 the remainder of the year (311 plate appearances).

The 2019 season was when Arozarena broke out as a prospect and first gained the Rays’ attention. The season started ominously, as Arozarena broke his hand in spring training and opened the year on the disabled list. When he returned, he hit .358 in Memphis with an increased walk rate and a decreased strikeout rate, earning an August call-up to the big leagues.

“That injury helped me to prepare myself – to gain strength in other parts of the body,” Arozarena said. “So I think that injury actually helped me to get here.”[1]

Once he got to the majors, however, there weren’t many opportunities as Marcell Ozuna, Harrison Bader, and Dexter Fowler claimed most of the outfield playing time. Arozarena took just 23 plate appearances the remainder of the regular season, going 6-for-20 (.300) with a double and a home run.

Though he made the postseason roster, Arozarena didn’t get much more opportunity in the postseason, going 0-for-3 in the National League Division Series (NLDS) and 0-for-1 in the National League Championship Series (NLCS). In fact, Arozarena’s most notable contribution was sharing manager Mike Shildt’s profanity-laced postgame speech on Instagram after the Cardinals won a decisive Game 5 against the Braves to advance to the NLCS.

Though Arozarena remained unpolished as a professional ballplayer, the Rays saw the potential for an everyday outfielder.

“Our staff saw adjustments that led to more contact and more impact,” Rays general manager Eric 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.”[2]

In Martinez, the Rays saw another opportunity. The 30-year-old made his major-league debut with St. Louis in 2016, then hit .309/.379/.518 with 14 homers and 46 RBIs in 2017. In 152 games in 2018, he hit .305/.364/.457 with 17 homers and 83 RBIs.

In 2019, however, Martinez’s playing time and numbers dipped, as he hit .269/.340/.410 with 10 homers and 42 RBIs in 373 plate appearances. Though his overall numbers declined, Martinez continued to feast on left-handed pitching, batting .329/.397/.600 against southpaws.

“In a pursuit of upgrading our lineup against left-handed pitching, he’s someone that really fits us well,” Neander said. “We believe the numbers that he put up last year are not representative of who he is as a hitter and we believe he is closer to what we saw the two prior years.”[3]

From the Cardinals’ perspective, trading Arozarena and Martinez would clear playing time in the outfield. With Fowler in left field and Bader in center, the Cardinals still had Tyler O’Neill, Lane Thomas, and left-handed prospect Justin Williams competing for playing time in left field. Additionally, the team’s top prospect, switch-hitting outfielder Dylan Carlson, was expected to arrive in the majors in 2020.

Of course, the real prize was the 6-foot-4 Liberatore, whom the Rays had drafted 16th overall in 2018 out of Mountain Ridge High School in Glendale, Ariz. Baseball America ranked him the fifth-best left-handed pitching prospect in the game while praising his mid-90s fastball, curveball, and changeup, calling him “as safe a bet as a teen pitching prospect can be.”[4]

At the time of the trade, Liberatore was the No. 3 prospect in the Rays’ system, trailing only Wander Franco and Brendan McKay. He immediately became the Cardinals’ top pitching prospect.[5]

“We are extremely excited to be adding a top pitching prospect in Matthew Liberatore to our organization, and this trade also helps us to create more opportunity in the outfield for players like Tyler O’Neill, Lane Thomas, and others,” Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said in a team statement.[6]

At just 20 years old, Liberatore was still years away from the majors, but fans and the media saw a way he could immediately impact the big-league club.

“Liberatore becomes an attractive chip that could go into an Arenado swap or stay to offset the loss of another hurler,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Jeff Gordon wrote. “As colleagues Derrick Goold and Ben Frederickson have explained in detail, completing an Arenado deal would be tricky for a host of reasons. But with Liberatore added to the Cardinals’ assets, it suddenly became more feasible.”[7]

“Most trades are judged by answering two questions. Who did the Cardinals get? Who did the Cardinals give up?” Frederickson wrote. “Thursday night revolved around a third. When will the Cardinals flip Liberatore for Arenado?”[8]

In the Belleville News-Democrat, columnist Scott Wuerz suggested that the Cardinals could package Liberatore and fellow prospect Nolan Gorman to obtain Arenado.

“I really liked Arozarena,” he wrote. “He could fly and seemed like a guy who had the potential to bat at the top of the order and rack up doubles and triples. But Arozarena was too slight to ever be a feared slugger and, like they say, you’ve got to give up something of value to get value in return.”[9]

It would be more than a year before Arenado was traded to St. Louis, and when he was, Liberatore was not part of the package. Instead, the Cardinals sent pitcher Austin Gomber and four prospects to the Rockies to obtain the franchise third baseman.

Liberatore did not pitch in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic shut down minor-league baseball, and when he returned to action in 2021, the Cardinals assigned him to Triple-A Memphis, where he posted a 4.04 ERA in 124 2/3 innings.

In 2022, he split time between Memphis and St. Louis, posting a 5.97 ERA in 34 2/3 major-league innings. In 2023, he again rode the Memphis shuttle, posting a 5.25 ERA in 61 2/3 innings with St. Louis.

Rodriguez played sparingly in the Cardinals’ system, appearing in 30 games in 2021 and playing in just 18 games in the Florida Complex League in 2022.

Using the second-round supplemental pick they received in the trade, the Cardinals drafted Tink Hence, a University of Arkansas commit who signed for $1.12 million. In December 2023, MLB.com ranked him the Cardinals’ No. 2 prospect behind shortstop Masyn Winn.

Meanwhile, Arozarena exploded onto the scene for the Rays in 2020. After missing the Rays’ first 34 games due to a COVID-19 diagnosis, Arozarena became an everyday player for Tampa Bay, hitting .281/.382/.641 with seven homers, 11 RBIs, and four stolen bases in 23 regular-season games.

However, it was during the Rays’ World Series run that he emerged as a star. Facing the Yankees in the American League Division Series, Arozarena went 8-for-19 (.421) with three home runs, then went 9-for-28 (.321) with four homers and six RBIs against the Astros to earn American League Championship Series MVP honors. He continued his torrid hitting against the Dodgers in the World Series, going 8-for-22 (.364) with three homers and four RBIs. Altogether, he slugged 10 home runs in 69 postseason at-bats.

Arozarena proved he wasn’t a fluke in 2021, batting .274/.356/.459 with 20 homers, 69 RBIs, and 20 stolen bases on his way to Rookie of the Year honors. After another strong showing in 2022 (20 homers, 89 RBIs, and 32 stolen bases), he was selected for the 2023 all-star game. Arozarena finished the 2023 season with 23 homers, 83 RBIs, and 22 stolen bases for his third consecutive season of at least 20 homers and 20 stolen bases.

While Arozarena was clearly on the way up, Martinez’s career was rapidly winding down. He played in 24 games for the Rays, batting just .239 with two home runs, before they traded him to the Cubs for a player to be named later. He appeared in 10 games for the Cubs before signing as a free agent with the Mets. He spent 2021 in the Mets’ minor-league system and played in the Mexican League in 2022 and 2023.

With the supplemental first-round pick they received from the Cardinals, the Rays took Alika Williams, a shortstop out of Arizona State University, 37th overall in the 2020 draft. In June 2023, Tampa Bay traded Williams to the Pirates for relief pitcher Robert Stephenson.

Enjoy this post? Sign up below and get Cardinals history delivered directly to your inbox!

[1] Rick Hummel, “Arozarena’s special wake-up call,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 14, 2019.

[2] John Romano, “Expectations Raised,” Tampa Bay Times, January 11, 2020.

[3] John Romano, “Rays trade a top pitching prospect for offense,” Tampa Bay Times, January 10, 2020.

[4] Derrick Goold, “Cards Make Major Move,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 10, 2020.

[5] John Romano, “Rays trade a top pitching prospect for offense,” Tampa Bay Times, January 10, 2020.

[6] Jeff Jones, “Cardinals trade outfielders for lefty pitching prospect,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 11, 2020.

[7] Jeff Gordon, “Mozeliak managing Cardinals’ assets well,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 15, 2020.

[8] Ben Frederickson, “Hurdles for Arenado deal would be too high,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 10, 2020.

[9] Scott Wuerz, “Will Liberatore be rotation linchpin or valuable trade chip?” Belleville News-Democrat, January 12, 2020.