The Tampa Bay Rays had arguably the best draft of any team in 2018. They accrued just about as much value with their picks as anyone. Their first pick and headline name was taken sixteenth overall, a left-handed pitcher out of Mountain Ridge High School in Arizona.
Eighteen-year-old Matthew Liberatore, a native of Peoria, was the superior high school pitcher in the draft class. Baseball America ranked him as the second-best overall player in the class while also being ranked #3 by ESPN’s Keith Law and #4 by MLB.com.
The 6’5” 200-lb lefty was named a Rawlings Perfect Game First Team All-American and Arizona’s Gatorade State Baseball Player of the Year for 2017-18. Liberatore had been committed to playing college ball with the University of Arizona Wildcats before signing with Tampa Bay.
The summer leading up to the draft was full of domination for Liberatore. To start, he was selected to play in the nation’s two most prestigious showcases, the Perfect Game and Under Armour All-American games. In his two outings, he was overpowering against the best high school talents in the country, throwing 4 innings, allowing only one hit and striking out seven.
If taking care of business in those venues wasn’t enough, Liberatore also played for Team USA 18U. He threw 12 innings, giving up no runs and striking out 13 batters.
The imposing lefty throws a fastball that sits in the mid-90’s, a curveball, changeup, and a plus slider. Evaluators believe the development of a third pitch and the addition of 15-20 pounds on his athletic frame will help him evolve into a future starting pitcher in the Major Leagues.
I recently spoke with a former teammate of Liberatore. Hermilo Madera was the starting catcher for Mountain Ridge High School back in 2017. As a senior, Madera caught then-junior Liberatore who went 8-0 with a 0.79 ERA in 62.1 innings.
He described Liberatore as a, “very competitive pitcher, very passionate, does what he can for the team.” He’s someone with “really good command, some of the best I’ve ever seen.”
When asked about Matthew’s philosophy of attacking hitters, Madera expressed that, “In high school, he loved throwing his fastball. He loved getting ahead of hitters and setting people up for the curveball or off-speed. He pounded the zone with first-pitch strikes.”
Not only is Liberatore an individual force on the field, he provides the strong leadership off the field that you would desire in a player of his magnitude. “Great kid, friend, and teammate. (He) did whatever he could for the team. (He’s) always up, cheering for his teammates.”
There were many experts in the industry who were surprised to see him drop a little bit in the draft order. The Rays, however, seized the opportunity and selected a consensus top-10 talent.
“As an organization, we believe that Matthew has the physical and mental ability to develop into a top-end starting pitching prospect…Through hard work to this point in his career, Matthew has shown an advanced ability to compete with an impressive repertoire of pitches and an arm action and delivery built for sustained success. On top of his physical ability, he is a young man with strong character and a great mental foundation for playing baseball. We believe these ingredients will continue to flourish in our system. We are thrilled that we were able to complete a deal so quickly after the draft in order to get Matthew started on his professional journey.”
— Rob Metzler, Rays Director of Amateur Scouting
Four days after the draft on June 8th, Liberatore signed his first professional contract for $3.5 million, just under slot value ($3.6035 million). The Rays assigned him to the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League Rays. This could be the beginning of a great career with an emergence similar to a young David Price with Tampa in 2008.
Liberatore was sent to the Gulf Coast League rookie league in Florida to start his professional career. Although they are taking it slow with him, he has appeared in five games in just over a months time. In the short sample size, he has a 2.08 ERA with 13 K’s and 7 BB’s in 13 innings. He has yet to eclipse the four-inning mark, but he has more than enough time to develop and get further into ballgames.
Update: In 2018, he finished with 32.2 innings, 1.38 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, .189 BAA, and 37 strikeouts for the GCL Rays and Princeton Rays.
Photo Credit to Patrick Breen of The Republic