It's now or never for Cardinals' Matthew Liberatore

Once thought to be a future rotation fixture, St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Matthew Liberatore is facing his last chance to show that he belongs in the starting five.

St. Louis Cardinals v San Diego Padres
St. Louis Cardinals v San Diego Padres / Sean M. Haffey/GettyImages
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More than in the other three major North American sports, drafts in Major League Baseball are a crapshoot. Even in the first round, the rate of "busts" on picks is higher in baseball than anywhere else. So when the Tampa Bay Rays offered the 2018 draft's 16th overall pick in Matthew Liberatore to the St. Louis Cardinals for supplemental pieces Jose Martinez and Randy Arozarena less than two years after that draft, perhaps the Cardinals should have smelled something amiss.

The Cardinals were undoubtedly ecstatic to receive such a prized prospect and believed that after a little minor-league seasoning, Liberatore would be ready to step into a top-of-the-rotation role. Of course, those expectations have yet to come to fruition, and 2024 is likely the last opportunity for Liberatore to find a spot in the rotation.

The Cardinals signed three starters in the offseason, making it clear that their expectations have plummeted for the left-hander to carve out a substantial role in the rotation. Currently, Liberatore appears to be competing with Zack Thompson to serve as the team's sixth starter early in the season and potentially move to the bullpen as the season progresses.

The bullpen may end up being the best place for Liberatore to find his stride. His numbers out of the bullpen in 2023 were far superior to those when he was in the rotation, with a 2.84 ERA in relief compared with a 5.88 ERA when starting. While Spring Training numbers shouldn't be trusted to predict future performance, his 5.40 ERA in two starts this spring was not what the Cardinals were looking for.

Liberatore could ultimately be another example of the Cardinals holding on to a player for too long. In this case, the Cardinals wanted to squeeze every last drop of production out of Liberatore in the hope that the Arozarena trade could be salvaged.

Liberatore's outlook as a second or third starter is now a relic, but if the Cardinals transition Liberatore to a full-time bullpen role, there is still a chance that he could flourish in the same vein as Andrew Miller, an unsuccessful starting pitcher who pivoted to an exceptional career in relief.

If Liberatore doesn't show dramatic improvement in the rotation in 2024, he likely won't receive another chance outside of spot-starter duties. But if the Cardinals are able to swallow their pride regarding whom they gave up for Liberatore, there's still a chance for the southpaw to emerge as a trusted piece out of the bullpen.

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