Last night the Tampa Bay Rays and St. Louis Cardinals made headlines with a big trade. The Rays received two MLB players in Jose Martinez and Randy Arozarena while trading Matthew Liberatore and a low minors catcher.
For the second time in less than a year the Rays have moved a player that is a consensus top 50 prospect in the game and that creates some unease for a fan base that is accustomed to be the team collecting prospects rather than trading them.
The biggest surprise in this trade, for me, is that it was actually Liberatore that was moved. Most of the trades the Rays have made in the last year have to deal with clearing out 40 man space. Liberatore isn’t Rule 5 eligible until December 2022.
The Rays have brought in two right-handed bats they have been looking for all winter to complement a lineup that will be left-handed hitter heavy. One was a lefty masher, but the other was hard to find: a player capable of covering center field when Kevin Kiermaier needs a day off or hits in the Injured List was the biggest need and Arozarena fills that need.
Arozarena played in two seasons for Vegueros de Pinar del Rio of the Cuban National Series. In his final season, at age 19, he hit .291/.412/.419. In 2016, he played in Mexico as he awaited clearance to sign with a MLB team.
In July 2016, he signed with the Cardinals for $1.25MM as a 21-year-old.
In three minor league seasons, he has done nothing but hit. In 1,302 plate appearances, he hit .292/.377/.477. The home run power didn’t show up until 2019. He hit 12 homers in 283 plate appearances for the Memphis Redbirds.
While he did play in the Pacific Coast League that is notoriously hitter friendly, the ballpark in Memphis isn’t as friendly as most PCL parks. It does need to be noted that AAA leagues moved to using the MLB ball that is more homer friendly.
In 1,302 plate appearances, all Arozarena has done is hit. He’s put up a .292/.377/.477 line playing almost exclusively in the upper minors since he was signed closer to the age of a typical college draftee.
Against left handed pitchers he has been more effective with a .327/.392/.558 line over 339 plate appearances.
In September, Arozarena received his first callup to the majors and hit .300/.391/.500 over a tiny 23 plate appearance sample. While the small sample doesn’t tell us much, he did produce some Statcast data to look over. His 90.7 mph average exit velocity was above average and four of his 16 balls in play left the bat over 100 mph, maxing out at 107.8 mph.
Defensively, Baseball America’s writeup they say, “He is adequate at all three outfield positions and has experience at second base, too.” I’m pretty confident he will never play second base with the glut of players in the system that call second base home.
Arozarena’s 29.4 ft/s Sprint Speed by Statcast puts him tied for the 23rd fastest in the majors last year tied with guys like Kiermaier and Mallex Smith. Speed isn’t the only thing that matters in the outfield, but does limit how good you can be.
On the Rays current roster it’s easy to see him filling a part-time role in 2020 as the fourth/fifth outfielder that can cover centerfield when Kiermaier needs a day off or hits the Injured List.
The biggest complaint on scouting reports seems to be that Arozarena plays too reckless at times. He’ll run into unnecessary outs on the bases or over swing at the plate. If he doesn’t become a major league starter this is likely why.
#Rays Neander on Randy Arozarena: "We believe he is on the cusp of establishing himself as a very good major league player with meaningful upside."— Juan Toribio (@juanctoribio) January 10, 2020
Rays General Manager Erik Neander believes he’ll be able to overcome these flaws and become a major league regular.
Projection systems are optimistic entering the season.
Steamer (found at FanGraphs) projects him to hit .256/.323/.410 and put up a 97 wRC+. This comes out to 0.4 fWAR over 169 plate appearances while being a negative defensive value.
Marcels Projections (found at Baseball-Reference) projects him to hit .261/.333/.452 over 212 plate appearances.
There is a lot of variance in projecting players with very little or no major league data as Marcel’s rates his projection with 9% reliability.
The Rays paid up for a player they believe in more than consensus. While Arozarena isn’t a bad prospect, he isn’t projected by most to be a major league starter, and the Rays are betting he will be.
There are reasons to believe he will be. He doesn’t hit for a lot of home run power, but he sprays liners and uses his speed on the bases to produce. He’s posted solid walk totals in the minors (8-10%) while not striking out excessively (17-20%). With good exit velocity numbers in his cup of coffee there are reasons to believe the bat can play up.
The Rays made their 2020 team better last night and as a fan I am happy they did even if it did cost them a piece they might wish they had in three to five years.