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Prized prospects Liberatore, Gorman look to major league play this season

General manager Michael Girsch believes two of the St. Louis Cardinals’ top prospects could reach the major leagues this season, giving fans a glimpse of two talented athletes.

Busch Stadium by Lou Countryman
(Source: Lou Countryman)

Prized left-handed pitcher Matthew Liberatore is one of the St. Louis Cardinals’ premier prospects along with third baseman Nolan Gorman. Baseball America’s list of Top 100 Prospects for 2021 finds Liberatore ranked at No. 46 and Gorman at No. 54.

The Cardinals are excited about both of their prospects.

In a recent video chat, Girsch gave voice to what the Cardinals have been debating for some time – that Liberatore and Gorman could be in the majors in 2021. They both must progress in different ways but they certainly can achieve a spot in St. Louis.

“If things go the way we hope this year, (Liberatore) will at least be in consideration by the second half of the season,” Girsch said over Zoom.

The expectation is for Liberatore to break camp and play in Double A. He hopefully will move up to Triple A. If that goes well, Girsch would not be shocked if Liberatore pitches in St. Louis later this summer.

Both Girsch and President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak lamented the fact that Gorman didn’t get to play in the minors last year.

“Nolan Gorman is a young man we’re really excited about,” Mozeliak said. “When you think about where Nolan was, he was in Double A but unfortunately that season didn’t happen last year.”

The Springfield alternate site used in 2020 offered Gorman a unique challenge, Girsch said. What he did not get in reps in a normal minor league season, he might have made up for in reps against really challenging pitching, more challenging than he might have faced in the minors.

“Nolan had a tough assignment in that most of the guys were big league quality pitchers, because we needed them as insurance,” Girsch said. “And the guys who weren’t were elite left-handed prospects (Liberatore and Zack Thompson). For a guy who had been in A ball the year before, it was a good wake-up call as to what he is going to face going forward.”

Mozeliak described the duo as “talented young men.” 

“When you look at our short view of prospects in terms of guys who can help pretty quick, those are two guys who just jump out at you,” he said.

Both players have been affected by trades.

The Cardinals dealt outfielder Randy Arozarena to Tampa Bay in exchange for Liberatore on Jan. 9, 2020. Earlier this winter, the Cardinals acquired third baseman Nolan Arenado from the Colorado Rockies.

Arozarena had a postseason for the ages last fall. In 23 regular season games with the Rays as a rookie, Arozarena batted .281 with seven home runs and 11 RBIs. He came alive in the postseason. In Game 7 of the American League Championship Series against the Houston Astros, Arozarena hit a two-run home run, surpassing Evan Longoria for most home runs by a rookie in the postseason. He was named the MVP of the American League Championship Series, becoming the first rookie position player to win the award. In the series, he hit .321 with four home runs and six RBIs.

Then in the World Series, Arozarena hit home runs in the third, fourth and sixth games, breaking the all-time record for most home runs in a single postseason. In Game 3, he surpassed Derek Jeter for most hits by a rookie in the postseason. In Game 5, he recorded his 27th hit in the postseason, surpassing Pablo Sandoval for the most hits in a single postseason. However, despite Arozarena’s record-setting performance, the Rays lost the World Series to the Los Angeles Dodgers in six games.

Liberatore, 21, acknowledged he watched the 2020 postseason games to see his former Rays teammates. While he watched Arozarena and was happy for him, any comparisons to Arozarena are not his concern.

“I watched a lot of the postseason and I did watch Arozarena,” Liberatore said via Zoom. “But I don’t really feel like it ever crossed my mind like, ‘Oh, that’s the guy I got traded for; I have expectations now that I have to live up to.’ At the end of the day, my competition is myself.

“So I wish him all the best, I want to see him go out there and have success. When it comes to what I need to take care of, I’m looking in the mirror every day and competing against that guy. So I don’t feel like there’s any added pressure on me or added expectation because of the way that he performed. At the end of the day, I’m happy that he did what he did in the postseason. There are no grudges there or anything like that.”

The obvious way for Liberatore to remove any doubts about the trade would be to impress with his performance on the mound.

“Look, he should be expecting and wanting to be joining us and rightfully so,” Cardinals Manager Mike Shildt said during a video session. “We’ve alluded to the fact that he had a really good alternate site camp last year. We enjoyed getting to know him and getting to observe him last year in spring training, and then in the summer camp. Exciting guy. He’s got good stuff. He’s going about it the right way. He’s hungry to learn. He loves to compete.

“He’s got the weapons to go along with it. He’s got a nice balance of being prepared and taking advantage of other people’s experiences while still relying on and trusting his own. So we’re excited to see him continue to move forward and to watching him pitch.”

Liberatore is ready.

“I have about a year and a half worth of fire built up in my stomach right now, ready to go out and let it unload on some hitters,” Liberatore said. “I think expectations-wise, what I’m looking forward to most in 2021 is seeing all the hard work that I’ve put in behind the scenes this past year finally come to fruition.”

Obtaining Arenado left Gorman having a Gold Glove All-Star player ahead of him at his position. He came to camp asking to learn a new position at second. Should his ability to hit show he can handle big league pitching, Gorman would likely find playing time somewhere. 

“Obviously, they’ve got a multi-Platinum Glove winner over there,” Gorman said. “So what am I? What am I going to do? I’ve got to find a new position. Whatever that is, wherever they want to put me, I’m gonna hit no matter what and become the best at that position that I possibly can. I’ll have to work hard because it’s obviously going to be something new.”

The left-handed slugger who was the 2018 19th overall pick got off to a solid start at Class A Peoria in his first full season in 2019, hitting .325 with six homers. The Cards promoted him to Class A Advanced Palm Beach in June.

The Cardinals invited Gorman to spring training last year. He went 8-for-26 (.308) in Grapefruit League play, striking out only five times despite the jump in competition. He also picked up three extra-base hits, including a homer off Mets reliever Stephen Nogosek on March 4, 2020.

Then spring training was shut down as the coronavirus pandemic first swept across the country.

This year, Gorman is hoping to impress with his bat.

“Obviously, Arenado is a great third baseman and having him as a teammate only makes that lineup better,” Gorman said. “I’ll do whatever I have to do to get into that lineup. If I can hit and put as much work as I can into ultimately second base, I’m gonna do it. I’m gonna grind until I become a really good defensive second baseman if that’s where they need me. If they need me in the outfield, I’m going to work just as hard out there as I would, you know, anywhere else.

“If I’m hitting, that’s my calling card. But if I can add a little bit of value to the second base position or whatever, I’m down to do it.”

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