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For starters, yes, it’s now officially “The Randy Arozarena Trade.”

Arozarena has been the star of the Rays’ postseason run, hitting an incredible .382/.433/.855 with seven home runs over 60 plate appearances in these playoffs.  The 25-year-old outfielder’s performance earned him ALCS MVP honors, making him the first rookie position player in baseball history to ever be named MVP of a league championship series or World Series.

It’s pretty on-brand for the Rays’ style of roster-building that their October hero is someone a lot of fans probably had never heard of as recently as September.  For a team that is rightly credited for a strong minor league system, it’s a little surprising that so few members of Tampa Bay’s World Series roster are actually homegrown players — only seven of the 28 players came up entirely through the Rays’ pipeline, with the other 21 all acquired via signings or trades.

Case in point, Arozarena.  Back in January, the Rays and Cardinals completed a multi-player deal that, at the time, was best known as “the Jose Martinez trade” or even “the Matthew Liberatore trade.”  Tampa Bay sent top pitching prospect Liberatore, catching prospect Edgardo Rodriguez, and their draft pick in Competitive Balance Round B (which ended up 63rd overall) to St. Louis in exchange for Martinez, the Cards’ pick in Competitive Balance Round A (or the 37th overall pick) and a certain future ALCS MVP.

At the time, Martinez was easily the best-known quantity, having hit .298/.363/.458 with 41 homers over 1288 PA for the Cardinals in 2016-19.  If you had predicted in January that a player from this trade would help lead the Rays to the AL pennant, the assumption would have been that Martinez continued (or improved upon) the offensive production he delivered in St. Louis.  A move to the American League was long seen as a way to possibly fully unlock his potential, as the defensively-challenged Martinez would no longer have to worry about playing the field in a league with a designated hitter position.

As it turned out, Martinez didn’t even finish the season in Tampa.  After missing much of Summer Camp due to a positive COVID-19 test, Martinez hit .239/.329/.388 over 76 PA for the Rays and was traded to the Cubs in a deadline deal for two players to be named later.  Martinez then didn’t collect a single hit over 22 PA for Chicago, and now looks like he could be a non-tender candidate this winter.

It’s worth noting that Martinez didn’t hit as well in 2019 as he did in 2017-18, leading some Tampa fans to wonder why a 31-year-old DH type was the apparent headliner of a trade package for one of the Rays’ (and baseball’s) top prospects.  Liberatore was the 16th overall pick of the 2018 draft and a consensus top-65 prospect, and even accounting for the lost 2020 minor league season, there’s no reason to believe Liberatore couldn’t still become a quality MLB starter.  Liberatore could even factor into the Cardinals’ pitching plans for 2021, as president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said Liberatore impressed the team while working out at the alternate training site this summer.

Arozarena was a well-regarded prospect in his own right, but hardly a top-100 type or even one of the top-tier names in the Cardinals’ system alone; MLB Pipeline ranked Arozarena as the tenth-best St. Louis minor leaguer at the time of the trade.  Since the Cards were already overloaded with outfield candidates, it was more than understandable that Mozeliak and company jumped to unload some of that surplus while bringing back a promising minor league arm.  Granted, St. Louis fans might not agree with this logic based on immediate returns, as several Cards outfielders (such as Tyler O’Neill, Lane Thomas, and even top prospect Dylan Carlson) badly struggled at the plate in 2020 while Arozarena thrived in Tampa Bay.

As valuable of an asset as Liberatore was and still is, however, the Rays felt okay with moving a piece of their future for the win-now addition of some outfield bats.  This is where the Rays’ outstanding player development system really comes into play — Tampa Bay is comfortable in taking the risk in trading such prospects because the front office has confidence they can always draft, acquire, and develop more good players to fill that void.

In a baseball world that holds top-100 prospects in higher regard than ever before, the Rays have dealt three such players (Liberatore, Jesus Sanchez, and Nick Solak) since July 2019, bringing back the likes of Arozarena, Nick Anderson, Peter Fairbanks, and Trevor Richards in return.  All are controllable young players in their own right, and all have been able to contribute at the big league level more immediately, with Arozarena, Anderson, and Fairbanks in particular all being major components of Tampa’s push to the World Series.

The Rays/Cardinals trade is also perhaps instructional in considering just how much teams value draft position.  The concept of trading draft picks is still unusual in baseball terms (the Competitive Balance Round selections are the only picks that can be traded), though fans of the NFL, NBA, or NHL are very familiar with how much teams in those sports often have to surrender in order to trade up in those respective drafts.  A 26-spot jump in the draft was a big leap upwards for the Rays, who used that 37th overall pick on Arizona State shortstop Alika Williams.  St. Louis, meanwhile, took Arkansas high school pitcher Tink Hence with the 63rd overall pick.

Perhaps in a decade’s time, we’ll look back on this deal as “The Alika Williams Trade” or “The Tink Hence Trade,” or even “The Edgardo Rodriguez Trade.”  Since the swap has already led to at least an AL pennant, the Rays likely won’t be too upset if Hence, Rodriguez, or Liberatore end up being staples of the Cardinals’ roster.  While fans take stock of which teams “win” or “lose” trades, most front offices hope all their deals are win-win moves — it won’t help future trade negotiations, naturally, if other teams are too wary of a club who only trades away future underachievers.

The Rays do tend to come out on the better end of trades more often than not, however, which is why the low-payroll franchise is currently playing for a World Series title.  Every playoff champion seems to have at least one unheralded acquisition leading the way, and while Arozarena is but one of several such players on Tampa Bay’s roster, his immediate impact and long-term potential make him a particular success story for the Rays’ front office.

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