AL EastAnalysisNL West

Diamondbacks Cash In on Favorable Circumstances

Blue Jays opt for short term success, while Arizona bolster the young talent on their rising team.

Fans had expected some type of trade to happen soon with the Blue Jays and Diamondbacks. The logjam nature of their rosters and having more high-quality outfielders and catchers than they knew what to do with made these two clubs perfect trade partners, and yesterday, that trade happened but in a much more shocking way than most expected. In case you missed it, the Blue Jays shipped a top 5 prospect in all of baseball, Gabriel Moreno, and Lourdes Gurriel Jr to Arizona for breakout star Daulton Varsho.

The Blue Jays got better

The move makes a lot of sense on the surface. The Jays made it clear that they were looking to get better in their weakest areas this offseason, and that focus was on upgrading defense and creating a more balanced lineup that doesn’t rely so heavily on righties. So far, Teoscar Hernandez’s righty bat is gone, defensive wizard Kevin Keirmaier has been brought in on a one-year deal, and now perhaps one of the best left-handed defensive outfielders in the game has been added to their squad. The Jays delivered on their promise to fans and in 2023 their lineup should be better for it.

The only question that lingers on my mind though after the dust settles on this trade is if it was too short-term focused for Toronto. ESPN insider and former pro scout Kiley McDaniel made a great point when the news broke by tweeting, “Moreno is a consensus top 10 prospect in all of baseball being; that kind of player being dealt is incredibly rare.” The risk that the Jays just played is trading away a young, MLB-ready catcher with a ceiling and lofty prospect ranking of a generational-type player that if he flourishes in Arizona could be talked about in the same breath as current young greats like Adley Rutschman. The reason you never see teams trade away consensus top prospects in all of baseball is that the risk teams run is absurdly high. Teams will pour resources, time, and money year after year into a development system with the hope that it might turn out a top 100 prospect here or there. So, imagine how valuable it is then when a team’s development system not only turns out a good prospect but one with franchise-altering potential and years of team control with it. That type of value is immeasurable and the fact that the Jays just traded the prized possession of their farm is telling of how badly they want to win in October.

At the end of the day, however, the Jays are getting an elite player in Daulton Varsho. After glimpses of his ability in the 60-game season and the following 2021, Varsho seized 2022 and put together one of the best seasons in the league with both his bat and glove. Originally breaking in with Arizona as a catcher, Varsho used his natural athleticism to translate better in the outfield and his insane defensive metrics showed he could not only handle the outfield but master it. He led all outfielders in Statcast OAA (outs above average) while splitting time between center and right field, and did that while hitting 27 home runs and posting an OPS+ of 109. While most of the other elite defenders joining Varsho on the OAA list boast glove skills equal to his, none can match the offensive production he showed in 2022.

That elite combination of high-value outfield defense and a good bat is one of the most sought-after combinations in baseball, with most teams playing elite fielders who can’t hit well because their glove is still that valuable. What Varsho has is that elite combination and because it’s so rare to find in a player, they had to pay the premium price with a top prospect in all of baseball.

The Diamondbacks have a bright future ahead

So what type of player are the Diamondbacks getting in Moreno? Well after years of frustratingly inconsistent production from Carson Kelly, Arizona now have a true franchise-defining catcher and leader in Moreno to add to one of the most formidable young cores in baseball. The catching position has been known recently for some of the worst offensive production by position and a large share of the focus is on defensive ability and how a catcher can work with a pitching staff, rather than their bat. So, a prospect like Moreno who grades as a high above-average defender with a plus arm and elite contact and power skills has all the tools to be one of the best catchers in all of baseball.

What is so impressive about Moreno has been his ability to hit wherever the Jays put him. There has been no level that has proven too difficult for him, and even breaking in with the Jays in their playoff run this past September, he seized the opportunity to the tune of a .315/.356/.377 slash line. As for his bat profile, it is described as being heavily contact-reliant with natural power that should show up for about 20-25 home runs a year. Moreno doesn’t hunt home runs as most do in today’s modern game but instead keeps a subdued, conservative approach that emphasizes taking pitches and hitting line drives with the hope that the power will continue to develop and show up in his hard contact. He has defensive versatility beyond the catcher position at third base and left field, but now that he’s out of the Toronto catching logjam situation, the position should be all his.

Look for Moreno to quickly flourish with Arizona and be well on his way to All-Star honors, joining Rutschman as a top young receiver in the game. He should compliment the likes of other top prospects with Arizona in Corbin Carroll, Alek Thomas, and Jake McCarthy as that young core prepares to make its mark as one of the best in baseball if successfully developed.

The second piece in this deal, Lourdes Gurriel Jr, is not nearly as impactful as Moreno but should still provide offensive production and make up for the lost versatility of Varsho. Gurriel Jr has been a consistently above-average hitter in every year of his career, as he has now posted a career 8 bWAR across 5 seasons. It’s a nice little addition for the D-Backs that shows their shift from focusing just on development to a more win-now-focused style of ballplayer that should add immediate offensive production.

Who wins this trade?

So is there a trade winner? Not yet. Most trades serve a clear purpose for teams and their goals and that’s just what this one is as well. Both Arizona and Toronto had needs to fill if they were to get the most out of their roster and both are in different competing positions, so it makes sense with the directions both teams picked.

Toronto opted for the short-term angle. They trade away a potentially huge part of their future in Moreno for the short-term advantage of a high WAR defensive bat that should pay dividends immediately. The danger for the Blue Jays in this trade though is if Moreno breaks out to be the top catcher everyone expects him to be and they’re then stuck with the decision they made to go with the much lower-ceiling catchers in Jansen and Kirk.

It’s also worth noting that players who rely so heavily on defensive value, like Varsho, can fluctuate from year to year. Nicky Lopez was a prime example of this last year when he followed up a 4.3 bWAR season from 2021 on second base defense entirely with a negative WAR season in 2022 that showed how faulty defense alone is to rely on. So, while Varsho’s bat is above league average, for now, all it can take is a couple of seasons with a below-average bat to see his value tank.

For Arizona, they capitalize on a young player like Varsho peaking at his value at the right time to snag one of the best young players in baseball. Prospects, though, are fickle. Their success rate is very faulty, though the higher up they are, the higher the guarantee for success is. With Moreno, Arizona could have an 8 WAR catcher in a couple of years’ time, but they could also have a league-average catcher if not everything falls into place for him as we think.

Ultimately, this trade needs time to simmer, and only then can wee whose gamble paid off.

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