Liberatore signs for $3.5 million, starts rookie ball

Mountain Ridge’s Matthew Liberatore poses for a photograph before practice on April 11 at Mountain Ridge High School in Glendale. [Jacob Stanek/West Valley Preps]

Richard Smith
West Valley Preps

In about a month, Matthew Liberatore went from being the Gatorade state baseball player of the year and a first team American Family Insurance All-USA pitcher to a another pro trying to make his way in rookie ball.

He also embarked on an accelerated journey to adulthood — with a paycheck most adults can only dream of.

The Peoria resident graduated from Mountain Ridge on May 25 and was selected by the Tampa Bay Rays with the No. 16 pick of the Major League Baseball draft June 4. He signed a $3.5 million contract with the Rays June 12 and was assigned to Port Charlotte (Fla.) of the Gulf Coast League June 18.

“I would say rookie ball is quite unlike high school ball in many ways. The atmosphere and the way players and coaches and talk to each other is very different. Players call the coaches by their first names instead of “Coach,” Liberatore stated in an email. “We have a lot more freedom than in high school too. Plus, I’m living on my own for the first time. There is also a lot of Latin players in rookie ball and many speak very little English so being exposed to new cultures and people make it a unique and fun experience also.”

He pitched his final game for the Mountain Lions May 13, clinching the team’s berth in the state 6A final. He then had to watch on May 16 as Mountain Ridge lost to rival O’Connor, led by close friend and fellow elite prospect Nolan Gorman.

He tried to relax and enjoy graduation and the run up to the draft. Liberatore and Gorman filmed a video for MLB Network chronicling their journey from Little League teammates to draft night.

“It was an exciting time but not much out of the norm. I stuck to my normal routine of working out and also spending time with friends. For the most part, teams contacted my advisor, Garrett Parcell, so I didn’t have much direct contact from them during that time period,” Liberatore stated.

The MLB draft remains the most unpredictable in major North American team sports. Liberatore and Gorman were projected as top 10 picks by a majority of baseball media.

Neither were. The Rays chose the 6-5 lefthanded pitcher, with the No. 16 pick. Gorman, a power hitting third baseman, went at No. 19 to the St. Louis Cardinals.

“I knew the draft could be unpredictable so that is why I went in with no preconceived expectations. I also knew I had no control over who chose me, so I tried not to focus on any particular organizations. I was just happy to hear my name called,” Liberatore stated.

While Liberatore was unfazed by the draft projections — which included some top five talk and even consideration as the No. 1 overall pick — left the Rays feeling like they got a steal.

His addition of a slider this season, to a repertoire that includes a mid-90s fastball, plus curveball and changeup, earned Liberatore praise as the most polished high school pitcher in the draft.

“I’m very pleased with the outcome tonight. Matthew Liberatore, we saw him as the top left-handed high school pitcher in the draft. We think he has the physical, mental abilities and character and we think he has a really good chance to develop into a top starting pitching prospect in our organization,” said Rays director of amateur scouting Rob Metzler in an interview June 4 with Fox Sports Florida. “This was a surprising outcome. He’s somebody who has a change to pitch in a significant role in the starting rotation and somebody who has the stuff to get the best hitters in the league out. He’s very advanced for a high school arm.”

Mountain Ridge senior pitcher Matthew Liberatore starts his motion during a game earlier this season at the Glendale school. [Donna Mundy/For West Valley Preps]
Liberatore had to decide whether to turn professional or wait and play college baseball at Arizona.In the end, it only took him a week.

“I had chills when I was signing the contract, not because of the money but because I was achieving my childhood dream of becoming a professional baseball player. I decided to choose professional baseball over the University of Arizona because I felt I was ready to start my career and begin working towards my ultimate goal of playing in the MLB,” Liberatore stated.

He will not be alone on the other side of the country. His aunt and uncle Vicki and Doug Dunbar live in Tampa.

Plus he lands in an organization that — by necessity if nothing else — is oriented toward drafting and developing young players. The franchise gave pitchers like Matt Moore, David Price and James Shields.

“Everyone in the Rays organization has been super kind and generous. They’ve treated me with a lot of respect and care and made it a really smooth transition for me,” Liberatore stated. “The fact that they have a great reputation for developing pitchers made it an extremely attractive situation and made me feel very comfortable going to this organization.”

Now it is time for Liberatore to work his way up in the organization.

“My goal is to do everything that the team asks of me, to learn and to grow and develop as a person and player. Beyond that there has not been any discussion to this point about what my future may hold,” Liberatore stated.

You are encouraged to leave relevant comments but engaging in personal attacks, threats, online bullying or commercial spam will not be allowed. All comments should remain within the bounds of fair play and civility. (You can disagree with others courteously, without being disagreeable.) Feel free to express yourself but keep an open mind toward finding value in what others say. To report abuse or spam, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box.