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Cardinals top prospects Nolan Gorman and Matthew Liberatore have arrived. Why ‘it was time’

NEW YORK — For Nolan Gorman and Matthew Liberatore — best friends since grade school and the top two prospects at their respective positions in the Cardinals’ farm system — the question was never if they would eventually be called upon to produce at the big-league level. It was only a matter of when.

That moment is finally here.

Gorman will start at second base in his major-league debut Friday against the Pirates. Liberatore, St. Louis’ No. 1 pitching prospect, will make a spot start on Saturday for his big-league debut. Gorman ranks No. 17 overall on The Athletic’s Keith Law’s top-100 prospect rankings and Liberatore is listed at No. 36.

“The decision (to bring up Gorman) was once we realized we had a playing opportunity for him, we decided, given his performance at Triple A, that it was time,” president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said in a phone call with The Athletic.

For both players, performance and opportunity dictated these callups. Gorman has been lighting up the Triple-A circuit, leading the league with 15 home runs, and Liberatore has demonstrated much better command of his four-pitch arsenal, holding a 3.83 ERA over seven starts for Memphis. Until recently, however, both players wouldn’t have necessarily seen much playing time with the way the Cardinals’ roster was constructed. The middle infield was crowded and the team had multiple designated hitter options, and with Jordan Hicks being deemed a starting pitcher at the beginning of the season, the rotation was full as well.

But things have changed dramatically for the Cardinals over the last two weeks. It started with the organization optioning All-Star shortstop Paul DeJong to Triple A on May 10. Rookies Juan Yepez and Brendan Donovan have emerged as everyday players for the Cardinals, and their defensive flexibility creates plenty of options for manager Oli Marmol to tweak the starting lineup each day. This became even more important when starting left fielder Tyler O’Neill, who is battling a brutal slump over the first seven weeks of the season, landed on the 10-day IL with a right shoulder impingement after Thursday’s walk-off loss to the Mets.

With an active roster spot available, and Yepez, Donovan and Corey Dickerson all able to play left field in O’Neill’s absence, the opportunity for Gorman swung open. He is expected to be the club’s everyday second baseman, with 2021 Gold Glove winner Tommy Edman sliding to shortstop. The two will be the predominant middle-infield options for the immediate future. Edman, who played shortstop in college at Stanford and in the minor leagues, has been taking reps at shortstop before games over the last week, but hasn’t played the position during a game this season.

“I’m excited for the opportunity and I’ll be prepared,” Edman said to The Athletic in a text message. “I’m very comfortable at both positions up the middle so it shouldn’t be a difficult transition.”

Edmundo Sosa will remain the infield utility reserve, though he is still nursing a mild ankle strain sustained while sliding into second base on a caught stealing attempt Wednesday.

To make room on the 40-man roster for Gorman, the Cardinals transferred starting pitcher Jack Flaherty (right shoulder bursitis) to the 60-day injured list, though the move does not impact Flaherty’s timetable for a return and is not viewed as a setback by any means. Gorman took O’Neill’s spot on the active roster.

In Liberatore’s case, matters of circumstance also factored into the timing of his selection. A doubleheader on Tuesday meant the Cardinals need an extra starter (or a collective bullpen effort) on Saturday in order to keep each member of the rotation on five days’ rest. However, with Hicks and Dakota Hudson both unable to complete five innings in their respective starts, the relievers (who covered more than 14 innings over three days) were taxed, and a bullpen game was ruled out.

A variety of factors will dictate whether Liberatore’s outing is a one-time start, whether he’ll remain with the club in a different role or whether he’ll continue to hone his skills in Triple A.

“We wanted to keep our starters on five days’ rest,” Mozeliak said. “We didn’t want to push Miles (Mikolas). … I don’t want to put added pressure on a player, but we’ll see how it goes and then we’ll make a decision.”

The Cardinals’ rotation for the weekend series at PNC Park will now be Adam Wainwright on Friday, Liberatore on Saturday and Mikolas on Sunday.

Liberatore, Iván Herrera and Ángel Rondón will be added to the team’s taxi squad on Friday. Liberatore will be activated Saturday, with a corresponding roster move to follow. Herrera, the club’s top catching prospect, joined the taxi squad in case the Cardinals need a backup catcher over the weekend after Andrew Knizner took a couple of foul balls off the face mask on Thursday and left the game.

There is no timetable for O’Neill’s return. He first started feeling soreness in his throwing shoulder on Wednesday, which he attributed to perhaps coming from playing 18 innings the day prior. O’Neill wasn’t scheduled to be in the lineup Wednesday regardless, but he was expected to play on Thursday. He tested his shoulder on the field but the team ultimately decided to err on the side of caution after a quick turnaround from a night game to a day game.

After finishing the 2021 season in the top 10 of National League MVP voting, O’Neill has struggled considerably this year, hitting a mere .195 with a .552 OPS and a 31.5 percent strikeout rate. The hope is that O’Neill’s health clears and that perhaps some time in Memphis on a rehab assignment helps him find his timing.

“He’s feeling tightness in his shoulder, so it makes sense to let that be resolved,” Mozeliak said. “Hopefully he can take advantage of a rehab assignment and make the most of it. I would hope (the rehab assignment) is shorter rather than longer.”

The Cardinals played a disappointing series against the Mets. They lost three out of four games and fell to 20-18 on the season. Their starting pitching faltered over the last two games and their bullpen simply ran out of gas as a result. The effects of that were capitalized on the last pitch of the series, when Giovanny Gallegos delivered a 93 mph fastball down the heart of the plate that Pete Alonso pummeled for a walk-off two run homer in 10 innings. Ryan Helsley, who stifled the Mets the inning prior, was unable to come back out for the 10th. He only had enough stamina for one inning, leaving Marmol to opt for Gallegos.

The Cardinals haven’t spent a game under .500, but they’ve hovered around that mark all season. The organization is hopeful that shaking up the roster will provide some different outcomes.

On Thursday evening, they made it clear how they expect those different results to come to fruition. It’s time for the kids to play.

(Photo of Nolan Gorman: Brian Westerholt / Four Seam Images via Associated Press)

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