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Rays and Cardinals execute trade involving José Martínez and top prospect Matt Liberatore

This is a curious trade involving one of the smartest teams in baseball trading a top prospect for an underwhelming return.

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League Championship Series - Washington Nationals v St Louis Cardinals - Game One Photo by Scott Kane/Getty Images

There are not many interesting free agents left this winter, but at least there will always be sweet, sweet trades. The latest involves former trade partners the Rays and Cardinals, both of which executed a trade during the 2018 season to send Tommy Pham to Tampa Bay.

The latest trade involves the Rays sending Matthew Liberatore and Edgardo Rodríguez to St. Louis in exchange for José Martínez and Randy Arozarena. The teams are also swapping Competitive Balance Round picks, meaning in this case that the Rays get to move up around 40 spots up in the 2020 draft and get the additional bonus pool money that comes with that.

I imagine that once upon a time, maybe as early as several years ago, the Cardinals would not even take the Rays’ phone calls for a long time because of the results of the Tommy Pham trade. The season after his breakout where he posted a line of .306/.411/.520, Pham had regressed badly. His .320 wOBA was barely above average, and nearly 40 points lower than it was the year before, so the Cardinals decided to trade him to the Rays at the 2018 trade deadline.

Pham rewarded the Rays’ belief in him by becoming one of the best hitters in baseball for the rest of the season, hitting a stellar .343/.448/.622 for the rest of the year in 39 games. He naturally regressed in 2019, but he still hit well, posting a line of .273/.369/.450. Meanwhile, the three prospects the Cardinals acquired for Pham do not look like they are going to pan-out.

The Cardinals are also a smart organization, so they understand the importance of process over results. There was no foreseeing that the results of the Pham trade were going to turn out so lopsided, and it is highly doubtful that the Rays knew this was going to happen, either, even if they were down on the prospects they were parting with.

This time, however, it looks like the trade is favoring the Cardinals on paper. Liberatore is a top pitching prospect in baseball, and the second-best left-handed pitching prospect behind the Padres’ Mackenzie Gore. The 20-year-old is projected to be a number-two starter, though he is still a few years away, which is likely part of the reason why the Rays traded him. They need offensive help now.

Liberatore is clearly the headliner in the trade, but Rodríguez is more than just a throw-in, who is a bat-first catching prospect and only 19 years old. The problem is that there is major concern that he will outgrow the position, or just not be good enough to handle it. His bat should be able to play at first or in a corner outfield spot, but obviously there is huge difference in value between what is basically opposite ends of the defensive spectrum. If he does stick at catcher, the Rays are probably going to relate to how the Cardinals felt with respect to the Pham trade.

Although Martínez is the better known of the two players going to Tampa Bay, Arozarena is likely the player that the Rays were more interested in. He obviously is not going to play center field with Kevin Kiermaier there, so he will likely be put in a corner. He should add value through defense and baserunning, but he is probably not going to hit for much power unless the ball continues to be juiced. With his speed and contact rates, I can see him hitting for a lot of doubles. He has the potential to be an average regular for the Rays.

Since Martínez is best-suited as a designated hitter, he was always an awkward fit for an NL team. The Rays now have the outfield depth to keep him away from there, and though he is not very good at first base, either, but he is not unplayable there. It is not surprising that the Cardinals decided to part with him, given his lack of fielding ability and the fact that he is coming off a down year where he was only a league-average hitter, which does not cut it at offense-first positions, especially when he is giving more than a few runs back on defense. The Cardinals were facing a roster crunch anyway, and Martínez was the best candidate to part with.

I expect Martínez will be platooned at first base and DH for the Rays. He is by no means terrible against right-handed pitchers, though, with a career line of .288/.350/.426 in 990 PA, but his true talent against righties is probably lower than that given his overall down year in 2019. Single season platoon splits suffer from small sample sizes, but his 2019 line against righties of .254/.325/.360 might actually be a fair approximation of what a projection would spit out for his true talent against right-handed pitchers. I am sure that he can still be counted on to crush lefties.

This trade is strange from the Rays perspective not just because they appear to have sold-low on Liberatore, but also because this trade would have been unnecessary had they just hung on to Pham instead of trade him to the Padres. Yes, this trade and the Pham trade were done in order to get cheaper outfielders, but contrary to popular belief, the Rays don’t need to save money. The team is valued at $1 billion. Principal owner Stuart Sternberg, who has always valued money over winning ballgames, is worth $800 million, and he is not the only wealthy person that is part of the Rays’ ownership group.

Given the Rays’ front-office cerebral reputation, I would not be the least bit surprised if this trade worked out better for them, but given what we know now, Tampa traded low on a top prospect in order to fill a need they created themselves by trading away Tommy Pham, who will be making only $7.9 million in 2020. The team might now be a little worse than they were at the start of the offseason, and in an especially competitive division, too. They have also exacerbated their roster crunch issues.

To be clear, this is not a “bad” trade for the Rays, per se, but more of a puzzling one. I expect Martínez and Arozarena to be productive, just not as much as Pham would be, and he could have been kept for just money instead of parting with a top prospect to fill his vacancy.

(Now that I have said that, watch Pham go bust in San Diego while Arozarena has multiple 4 WAR seasons for the Rays.)

Conversely, this trade looks better for the Cardinals. The big question now: do they hang on to Liberatore, or trade him now for major league ready player(s)?

. . .

Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.