Months ago, sales season for the Blue Jays kicked off with a series of questions. Every team always faces them. Some of the big ones in Toronto included:
1. Will this off-season be transformative?
2. Can a team remedy its lineup imbalance by getting left-handed hitters?
3. Will the Blue Jays have to trade from their healthy stock of MLB-caliber catchers to meet the need? And if so, which of the three?
About six weeks ago, the Blue Jays answered the first question with a resounding yes with their first big move of the offseason, trading Seattle Mariners favorite Teoscar Hernandez for reliever Eric Swanson.
And now, with the club’s latest circulation, the other two questions have been answered and the first question has been confirmed again. The Blue Jays traded Gabriel Moreno, their 22-year-old catcher and No. 1 prospect, along with left fielder and another fan favorite, Lord Guriel Jr., to the Arizona Diamondbacks for left fielder Dalton Varshaw. A two-for-one swap, announced on Friday, saw the two clubs deal from the depth areas to complete the important deal.
It’s official: We’ve got our Gold Glove and All-MLB finalist Daulton Varsho from the Dbacks in exchange for Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and C Gabriel Moreno.
you are welcome in #blue jaysAnd the MustafaHosny Oh God, Amen! pic.twitter.com/8veMoy8ZTt
– Toronto Blue Jays (BlueJays) December 23, 2022
The Blue Jays had the MVP of the deal as of this moment, but the high price tag was sending the Diamondbacks into a first-class consensus, the kind that is rarely dealt with these days as teams increasingly cherish their young talent. However, with Toronto deep at catcher, the transition from Moreno would probably be easier. Danny Jansen and Alejandro Kirk can stop checking trade rumors. They will make up the Toronto catch-up tandem next season.
Gurriel has been with the Blue Jays since he signed as an amateur free agent in 2016, and has developed into a solid contact hitter during the transition from infielder to outfielder. Gurriel was a darling among players and coaches. The Blue Jays were not looking to trade him. But according to a person familiar with the negotiations, he had to be included to bring the deal to the finish line. It gives Arizona a seasoned and experienced right-hander who can make up for some of Varshaw’s loss before becoming a free agent after the season. Meanwhile, Diamondbacks general manager Mike Hazen said the separation from Varshaw was “very difficult”.
We recruited and developed it through our system. “One player that I think we’re very proud to have on our team and in our organization,” Hazen said in a video conference with reporters. “(He) does it the right way, and plays hard. I think the fans appreciated the way he played both offensively and defensively. So, that was a challenge.”
In all professions, teams look for compatibility in value and circumstance. With this deal, the Blue Jays paid the heavy cost of a now much-needed winning move. The Diamondbacks, on the other hand, may take a step back in the short term, but hope to reap the benefits of acquiring a prospect with All-Star potential.
In Varsho, the Blue Jays are acquiring an elite young defensive tackle who hits hard from the left side, providing much-needed balance to their predominantly right-handed lineup. Even after the club signed Kevin Kiermayer to a one-year contract, general manager Ross Atkins said Toronto was still seeking more left side offense. Varshaw can provide that for at least the next four seasons; He is set to become a free agent after the 2026 season.
Varshaw, 26, had his best season yet in 2022, hitting .235/.302/.443 with a career-high 27 hits in 151 games. During his three years in the majors, he hit a clip that was just above average (24 percent) while walking average (8.6 percent). What it lacks in average, it makes up for in its ability to slow down, at 10.2 percent per barrel, which ranks 70th on a percentile level, per Statcast. His 106 wRC+ trip in 2022 indicates he was a slightly above-average hitter, and is expected to be about the same in 2023, according to the Steamer FanGraphs System. He has traditionally performed better against right-handed shooters (112 wRC+) than left-handers (66 wRC+).
Steam fWAR forecasts indicate that the Blue Jays have effectively traded Hernandez and Gurrell (3.6 fWAR) with Kiermaier and Varsho (4.2 fWAR). The latter two players are racking up more of their impact defensively than the former, though if there was an area where the Blue Jays could spare some effectiveness, it was the offense. Their positioning group of players is still expected to be worth 33.5 fWAR, according to FanGraphs depth charts, a number tied for American League debuts with the New York Yankees.
Much of Varsho’s overall value comes from his defense, and he’ll go a long way toward better addressing the Blue Jays’ focus on run blocking. While playing center and right field for Arizona, he scored an above-average 18 points in 2022, which ranked first among all outfielders. He owes his ability on the court in large part to his sneaky pace and first step. His FWAR of 4.6 ranked eighth among all eligible soccer players last season. His speed also serves him on the bases, stealing 16 bases a year ago.
With the deals of Hernández and now Gurriel, both slated to be free agents after the 2023 season, the Blue Jays have reshaped their ballpark to be among the best in the major leagues defensively. Farshaw and Kiermayer are in addition to the center fielders, and their presence will allow George Springer to spend more time playing right field. Varshaw can play all three outfield positions, but with Kiermayer expected to get first-choice in central court, Varshaw takes on the left fielder role for the team. He hasn’t played much there in his MLB career (17 games), but his instincts make him a quick study. Cavan Biggio and Whit Merrifield can cover the field too.
Although this deal remixes the Toronto arena, it also boosts prospects behind the plate, with Jansen and Kirk expected to be the starting catchers next season. Drafted and developed as a catcher, Varsho can act as an extra backup, which will come in handy in cases where the Blue Jays use one of their catchers as a DH. Even with Moreno off their depth chart, the Blue Jays have the best catching tandem in the majors — with Varsho in third — with 5.9 fWAR, according to FanGraphs depth charts.
Moreno had topped the Blue Jays’ list of prospects, each the athleteKeith Law, and made his MLB debut in June, playing 25 games for Toronto. In a young specimen, his athleticism flashed, especially his strong arm. He put the ball into play a lot at the plate, though there are questions about his power after hitting four home runs in 87 combined Triple A and MLB games.
Moreno still needs time to develop, perhaps especially from a game call perspective. A now-beaten club like the Blue Jays probably didn’t have that luxury, especially with two others of MLB caliber. Although Atkins maintained that the team would have felt comfortable making the three lists next season, the ideal course for the club would have been to use that valuable depth to bolster an area of weakness, especially if the returning player had years of control, as Farshaw does.
The Blue Jays may not have been done in this offseason. The club is still open to continuing to add to the lead, especially if there is an opportunity to boost the bulls game. With Gurriel gone, the Blue Jays can look to add a player position as well, likely once again in the outfield. But in trading for Varsho, the Blue Jays landed the soft power batter they needed while making money in their best trading chip.
(Top photo by Daulton Varsho: Rick Scuteri / USA Today)