Looking back on the St. Louis Cardinals’ decision to trade Randy Arozarena
By Greg Simons
The St. Louis Cardinals have traded away promising players to fill holes on the major league roster. How have they fared on other rosters?
Following the 2019 season, the St. Louis Cardinals had a glut of outfield options to filter through. Sure, Marcell Ozuna was gone via free agency, but Harrison Bader was establishing himself as a defensive stud in center field and Dexter Fowler – and his contract – were entrenched in right.
Additionally, Tyler O’Neill was pushing for playing time, Jose Martinez was a designated hitter looking for a defensive position, Lane Thomas and Randy Arozarena got their first taste of the big leaagues, and Dylan Carlson was steadily climbing his way up the minor league ladder.
Clearly, it was time to thin the ranks of options to roam the pasture in Busch Stadium. On Jan. 9, 2020, the Cardinals sent Martinez and Arozarena to the Tampa Bay Rays for minor-league pitcher Matthew Liberatore and minor league catcher Edgardo Rodriguez. The teams also swapped supplemental first-round draft picks.
While Martinez’s story may not be worth exploring much further – he hit poorly for the Rays and Cubs in 2020 and spent time in the Met’s minor league system last season – Arozarena’s tale certainly is worth revisiting.
Recalled in late August 2020, Arozarena caught fire once the calendar flipped to September. In 69 plate appearances between Sept. 1 and the end of the season, he batted .288/.377/.678 with seven home runs.
This hot streak caused people to take notice of Arozarena, but his regular season performance was just the appetizer in advance of the delectable entree he served up come playoff time.
In the first-ever best-of-three Wild Card round, part of the playoff expansion in response to the 60-game season shortened by COVID-19, Arozarena did very well, with a single, two doubles, and a triple in eight at-bats as part of the Rays’ two-game sweep of the Toronto Blue Jays. Then his bat got really hot.
In Tampa Bay’s five-game Division Series win against the New York Yankees, Arozarena stroked three solo homers and scored five runs, batting .421/.476/.895. Next was a seven-game battle with the Houston Astros in the ALCS, during which he cracked another four long balls and both drove in and scored six runs, he capturing the series MVP award as the Rays advanced to the Fall Classic.
The bright spotlight of the World Series didn’t outshine Arozarena, who went yard three more times, though the Rays fell to the World Champion Los Angeles Dodgers in six games.
His 10 postseason home runs broke the previous record of eight, shared by Barry Bonds, Carlos Beltran, and Nelson Cruz – and tied by Corey Seager in those same 2020 playoffs. And with national TV audiences watching his power display, he quickly became a household name.
The question of whether Arozarena could follow up that magical postseason in 2021 was answered in the affirmative. While his insane playoff home run pace was impossible to maintain, he did swat 20 homers, added three triples and 32 doubles, scored 94 runs, and collected 60 RBI, all leading to a .274/.356/.459 triple-slash line. Still a rookie last season since he accumulated only 76 PA in 2020, Arozarena’s performance earned him a landslide AL Rookie of the Year award.
From the perspective of the Cardinals and their fans, it certainly stung to see a player they dealt away several months earlier erupt with a record-breaking postseason performance. Perhaps Arozarena could have helped St. Louis get past the San Diego Padres in their 2020 Division Series loss. Maybe his fence-clearing ability could have pushed the Cardinals toward a championship.
But that’s a lot of what-ifs, and what’s done is done. The Cardinals have Liberatore moving up through the minors, with every expectation that he will make his major-league debut in 2022. If he pitches as well as the team hopes, everyone in St. Louis will be happy to have him take his regular turn on the mound for the next several seasons.
Who will be the long-term winner of this Arozarena-Liberatore trade? We’ll find out over the next few years. For now, Arozarena has given Tampa Bay the clear edge, as well as some record-setting excitement for Rays fans to remember fondly.