ST. LOUIS — Nolan Gorman had just finished a team-bonding mini-golf event at the Cardinals’ Instructional camp in Jupiter, Fla., on Thursday when he saw he had missed a phone call from his best friend, Matt Liberatore.
Liberatore had followed it with a text message, saying he had something he needed to tell Gorman, and the two quickly connected.
“Dude, I just got traded to the Cardinals,” said Liberatore.
Gorman, one of the Cardinals' top prospects, wasn’t immediately sure how to react because the news was so unexpected, even though it was something the two had dreamed about and talked about for years — playing on the same team.
Liberatore, a 20-year-old left-handed pitcher, and Gorman, a third baseman, have been friends since they played on the same team when they were 5 years old. Both were selected in the first round of the 2018 draft out of high school in Arizona, Gorman by the Cardinals and Liberatore by the Tampa Bay Rays.
In Thursday’s trade, the Cardinals used their outfield depth to send Jose Martinez and Randy Arozarena to the Rays in exchange for Liberatore and 19-year-old catching prospect, Edgardo Rodriguez, who is from Venezuela.
The two teams also agreed to swap competitive balance picks in this year’s amateur draft in June, with the Cardinals trading their pick in Round A, currently the 38th pick, to the Rays and obtaining Tampa’s pick in Round B, currently the 66th pick. Those spots could change slightly depending on future free-agent signings.
Most baseball analysts rank Liberatore as one of the top 50 prospects in the game and he immediately becomes the best pitching prospect in the Cardinals farm system and the third-best prospect overall, behind Dylan Carlson and Gorman.
Liberatore pitched in the Class-A Midwest League last season and likely will begin this season in high A Palm Beach before he moves up to Double-A Springfield, where Gorman is expected to play this season.
“We’ve talked about playing on the same team quite a bit,” Gorman said in a telephone interview. “He seemed pretty excited about it too. It’s exciting to have my best friend come over.
“With baseball, it’s always a possibility for something to happen. You never know when or how. We talked about it, but we never really knew if it could come true.”
The two have spent time together almost every day this winter when they have been home in the Phoenix area.
“We played Coach pitch together on the same team when we were 5 and our families became close and we stayed with that coach in club ball and then moved over to the same team when we got older,” Gorman said.
The two were opponents in high school but also were on Team USA together in high school when they helped the team win an international championship.
“He’s a four-pitch guy with a plus fastball,” Gorman said. “He’s got life on his fastball and a plus curveball. He started throwing a slider about a year ago and his slider is a plus pitch also. He’s a bulldog on the mound who tries to intimidate the other players. He’s got good control with all of his pitches. He understands the game and is pretty advanced for being 20 years old.
“He always has had the mentality of wanting to be the best when he steps on the field … I know how good of a pitcher he is. I put the ball in play off him, but I don’t think I ever got a hit.”
By trading Arozarena and Martinez, the Cardinals removed some of the logjam in their outfield, but they still have multiple players who will be vying for spots in spring training, including Tyler O’Neill, Lane Thomas and Carlson. Harrison Bader and Dexter Fowler are projected to open the year as starters and it is not out of the question the Cardinals could still bring back free agent Marcell Ozuna.
Much of Martinez’s playing time in the outfield evaporated last season with the emergence of versatile rookie Tommy Edman, and Arozarena also was a victim of numbers, ranking behind Carlson and Thomas despite having a big year with Triple-A Memphis.
The news that the Cardinals were acquiring Liberatore broke on Thursday afternoon but it was several hours before the other pieces of the trade became known, leading to speculation that it could be a precursor to another trade or even a three-team deal.
This is the first trade by the Cardinals this winter. The only player they have acquired who is on the 40-man roster is left-handed pitcher Kwang Hyun Kim, signed as a free agent from Korea.