Updated: Dec 5, 2021
WELCOME TO THE DIRTY FLIRTY.
These are my top 40 prospects in The Cardinals organization, aside from the players that I’ve already covered in The Dirty Annexes. This little ditty here is the preface to all of the post in our Dirty series. So, if you’ve read this once then you don’t need to read it again!
A warning to those looking for Lars Nootbaar, Scott Hurst, Junior Fernandez, Johan Oviedo, Jake Woodford, Edmundo Sosa, and anyone aside from Angel Rondon that has already made a major league debut: That’s not really my bailiwick, as I’m sure you’ve heard enough about those guys from more qualified outlets already. Most of those guys have exhausted their prospect status, anyway.
A reminder that this is an exercise in futility, ranking prospects. It’s a landscape that is ever-changing and developing. We are almost always talking about kids that are just starting to understand both themselves and their bodies, while learning the most difficult and nuanced sport in the land. You never know when someone is going to start doing 200 pushups per day on their way to postseason glory.
I ask for your thoughts and feedback. I ask that you have fun. I ask that you remember that I’m a moron. Most importantly, I ask that you take all of the prospect rankings from every outlet in the spirit of what they are: a snapshot of that moment, with a bent towards understanding what might come.
FOLLOW THE LIST AND RANKINGS BY CLICKING THIS LINK TO THE ENTIRE LIST OF TOP 40 PROSPECTS AND ANNEXES AND RAMBLES!!!
#4: LHP Matthew Liberatore
22 Years Old on Opening Day
Acquired from Tampa as part of the Randy Arozarena trade
Memphis and Team USA
134.1 is the telling number from Matthew Liberatore’s 2021 season, for me.
Between AAA and his time with Team USA, Liberatore threw 134.1 innings (to be fair, I could be adding wrong and even missing innings, so JOKES ON YOU CHUMP).
That really seems like a heavy workload following a lost 2020 season, to me. Even if you include his time in two spring training camps and one “Summer Camp”, that’s a hefty workload.
It really seems like the kind of workload that the Cardinals are banking on for their Major League roster early on during the 2022 season, if the 2022 season is played. The Cardinals' pitching depth was so tested and they thought so highly of Liberatore that they decided that it was more important to keep him pitching at Memphis than it was for him to pitch in the actual Olympic games for Team USA. To compound this believe, there were even rumors that Liberatore was going to get a start about midway through the Major League season in place of Carlos Martínez, but that never panned out. Before he was canned, Mike Shildt was keen on bringing up Liberatore as a potential Major League option, in that sly way that S(c)hildt did that sort of thing (and the Cardinals' brass was smart to hold off on it).
If nothing else, this should tell you all that you need to know about what the Cardinals front office thinks about Liberatore’s budding stardom.
The "prize" of the Randy Arozarena trade, Matthew Liberatore is hands down the best pitching prospect in the organization. The only arm in my top ten, Liberatore more than earns that acclaim, in part because of how futile the pitching was in the organization during the 2021 season, in part because of the large steps forward that so many hitting prospects took during the 2021 season, and in part because of some of the massive steps that he has personally taken forward since the end of the 2019 season.
Context is important with Liberatore, too. This was Liberatore’s first season pitching for the organization, and he was tasked with the toughest level of the Minor Leagues. As I mentioned, he was also asked to pitch for Team USA’s Olympic qualify team. Entering the 2021 season, Liberatore had never pitched above “A” Ball. There were times that things were very rocky for Liberatore at various parts of the season. I was very impressed to watch Liberatore battle through these tough times, ending the season stronger and better than I ever could have hoped or projected.
The two most vulnerable areas of Liberatore’s game is his throwing motion and his fastball. Regarding his motion, Liberatore tends to limit his available athleticism and size by keeping his body straight up and down through his entire mechanic. This is usually when his fastball is at it’s worst, too, in both velocity and movement. It appears that this limits Liberatore from reaching back and getting what he needs to get, and it usually forces his upper body and arm to stay open longer. This is also when he shows the ball for a longer period, and when he is most susceptible to allowing damage because he's not hitting his spots.
I was quick to dismiss the importance of the velocity on his fastball early in the season, and I was wrong for that. Liberatore is going to need to keep his fastball velocity in the mid-nineties if he is going to use his fastball heavily. Without the velocity, his fastball is fringe-average at best. Liberatore has good command of the pitch, but it behooves him to use it up in the zone so that he can play his curveball off of it, and outside to righties so that he can use his changeup and slider off of it. Without the velocity, he seriously cuts down on his ability to use that pitch as frequently as he is going to need to. I’m especially worried about it because of how old school Yadier Molina can be about going fastball-heavy with a young pitcher, regardless of how good their secondary stuff can be...
And man ohhhhhhhhhhhh man, is Liberatore’s secondary stuff good. Liberatore throws three off-speed pitches, and all of them can be above-average at any given moment. Liberatore’s curveball is the flashiest of the group, and it’s the one that will get you to laugh when you see a left-hander react to it. It can be a little exposed against right-handed hitters, but only rarely because Liberatore doesn’t rely on it to get righties out. It really is an aesthetically pleasing pitch. It's the second pitch in the gif below. I chose this gif to show you how beautiful the curve can be, but also to show you how well the slider and the curve can work off of each other. I'm following that up with a gif of the curve against a lefty because HAHAHAHAHAHA.
Liberatore is at his best against righties when he is using his slider and changeup in tandem. The nasty swings that Liberatore solicits from righties when he buries a slider inside, then follows it by fading a changeup outside is marvelous. Some nights, these two pitches can be so good that I could almost envision a situation in which Liberatore could throw each pitch 50 times in a 100-pitch outing without using his fastball or curve and still be really good. Right now, if Liberatore can go without relying on that fastball against righties then he’s in for a Major League breakout. I love Liberatore's slider, and I believe that it's his best and most versatile pitch.
At this point, you can easily see why Liberatore is such a highly regarded prospect by both the national-types and the Cardinals' organization. There aren’t many 21-year-old left-handed pitchers that throw four pitches, two of which are at least above-average regularly and a changeup that was average regularly. Averaging nearly a strikeout per inning with a strikeout rate of 23.7% on the season, Liberatore can ring up strikes and strikeouts while not giving up free passes. For a long time now, this is the exact prospect that the Cardinals have coveted. They probably feel a sense of relief that they finally have it. For his time in the organization, Marco Gonzales was mostly a two-pitch pitcher. His fastball was lively and his changeup was elite at times, but his curveball was still a work in progress. Coming off of an arm issue and some ineffectiveness, along with concerns with his fastball at the time, it made a lot of sense why the Cardinals would trade him for a clear organizational need in the power bat of Tyler O’Neill. It even took Gonzales committing to a cutter to reach his potential with the Mariners after the trade.
I bring this up because I believe that an argument can be made that Liberatore is currently where Gonzales was on his way to his breakout 2018 season. I’m hopeful that Liberatore can get more groundballs and I think that is going to be a big key for him moving forward, and I think that he has to use his entire repertoire to be that successful, but I think that Liberatore is probably only one year away from what Gonzales was for the M’s during the 2018 and 2019 seasons. He’s not there just yet, and he probably won’t be there during the first half of the 2022 season, but a really strong offseason could yield a quicker ascent to the next step in his development.
Maybe the most encouraging thing about Liberatore’s 2021 season is that he was great over the last two months of the season, spanning his last ten appearances. Three of those ten appearances came after a rehabbing major leaguer started the game, too. Over this 57.1 inning timeframe, Liberatore went seven innings in four of his seven starts, with an additional 6.2 inning appearance. In only two of those ten appearances down the stretch did he last less than 5 innings. Liberatore struck out 24.3% and walked 7.2%, while allowing a batting average against of .240. Liberatore's ERA was 2.67 and his FIP was 3.45 during this final stretch of the season. Entering that start on August 3rd, Liberatore’s ERA was 5.21 and his FIP was 4.95. It shouldn't surprise you to find out after reading what I've already written in this post that it was about his start on August 3rd that Liberatore became more consistent with a higher fastball velocity. You have to love that Liberatore kept that velocity through September with that many innings on his arm. That, ladies and gents, is how you build and end your narrative.
One thing that gives me hope about Liberatore’s future is that he understands pitching on that next level, even if he isn’t always executing at that level. He is a truly curious mind that will ask a million questions from people that know better than he does as he tries to get as good as he possibly can. He’s accepted and adopted all the modern technologies in an effort to become the best version of himself, as well. He’s big, smart, smooth, and repeatable, even when he’s straight up in his delivery. He has a pretty good pickoff move, as well.
One of the areas that I was quick to notice and criticize before he entered the organization was that Liberatore can be thrown off his game by bad umpiring. I am pleased to report that, aside from a few spots here and there, this is largely a concern of the past for him. It seems like he’s learned how to channel this frustration into strike-throwing instead of temperamental tossing. That’s a massive step in his development that I hope does not go unnoticed.
At the very least, this extremely gifted 22-year-old LHP is the white whale of the organization, and a back of the rotation pitcher with the chance to eat some innings. As I type that line, I wonder to myself if Liberatore can be the left-handed version of Miles Mikolas. That is, if he can keep his fastball velocity and increase his groundball rate. Liberatore obviously has way more potential than that, and some clear similarities to former Cardinals’ legend Marco Gonzales, but the sky is the limit for “Lib.”
As I just take a screenshot straight from their website, I can’t begin to stress loudly enough the important role that FanGraphs plays in the statistical side of what I do with these write-ups. Please subscribe to their service BY CLICKING THIS LINK.
In addition, you all know how important and valuable @cardinalsgifs is to the pictures that fire up these articles. I wouldn’t do the write-ups if it weren’t for him.
Thank For Reading!!