Arizona and Toronto Make a Bold Swap

Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Diamondbacks front office isn’t afraid to make marquee “challenge trades,” deals that are consummated in a place of competitive neutrality rather than between one “buyer” and one “seller,” swaps that have more to do with player fit, or the opportunity to move a player at the peak of their trade value in exchange for one you ordinarily wouldn’t be able to acquire. They did it when they sent Jazz Chisholm Jr. to Miami for Zac Gallen and pulled off a version of it when they acquired Starling Marte from Pittsburgh. Christmas Eve Eve brought the latest example, with Arizona sending outfielder Daulton Varsho to the Toronto Blue Jays in exchange for left fielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and catcher Gabriel Moreno. Varsho and Moreno probably aren’t names casual baseball fans know. In fact, I’d wager the culture is more familiar with Gurriel’s wavy, meringue-like locks than the two cornerstones of this trade, as Varsho has come of age in relative obscurity near the basement of a loaded NL West, and Moreno (though no longer rookie eligible due to days on the active roster) spent most of 2022 gestating in Buffalo. Instead, this is a blockbuster for the nerds and hardcore seamheads, a deal that fortifies a contending team’s lineup while giving the other club a rare opportunity to acquire a recently graduated top prospect and field a young, high-ceiling’d roster that might be able to slay the blue and brown dragons in its division if most of the youngsters pan out as hoped.

As of now, Varsho is the most accomplished and successful player in the trade. A former top 100 prospect himself, 2022 was Varsho’s third big league season, but the first in which he played the entire slate at the big league level. He had a career year, slashing .235/.302/.443 with 27 homers, 53 total extra-base hits, and 16 steals in 22 attempts, all while playing several positions, including some center field and catcher. Even with the low batting average and on-base percentage, Varsho’s season was good for a whopping 4.6 WAR, placing him 26th among all position players in baseball. A huge chunk of that WAR total comes from Varsho’s defensive metrics, as Statcast has him evaluated as having been worth 18 Outs Above Average in the outfield, sixth in all of baseball in 2022 and first among everyday outfielders.

It’s wise to take defensive metrics with a grain of salt. Even for a relatively fleet-footed player, such a superlative performance was surprising given Varsho’s catching background and prospect evaluation, which projected him to an outfield corner in the event that he couldn’t stick behind the plate. If he were truly an elite right fielder and plus center fielder (his OAA were split pretty evenly between the two positions), why wasn’t he just being deployed as an outfielder throughout his career? Part of the reason Varsho’s statistical performance is in its own stratosphere is the sheer number of opportunities rated “three star” and above he had throughout the 2022 season. He ranked no lower than 15th in all of baseball in opportunities to make three-, four-, and five-star plays on defense. But he did make those plays, all at a rate near the top of the big league leaderboards, including every single three-star play he was tasked with, a great distance from the rest of his peers when you combine raw opportunity and rate of success.

Statcast loves the initial read and jump Varsho gets off the bat, rating him in the 97th percentile in this category. This isn’t really something that comes across on TV because of the half-second lag that all center field cameras seem to have relative to other broadcast angles, but take in a good number of Diamondbacks games in person and yes, Varsho is a damn good outfielder. He is especially good at breaking to his left, either to run down balls in the right-center field gap or, as a right fielder, lunging into the right field corner near the foul line.

The Blue Jays have been chasing viable defensive center fielders on the margins of their roster since Kevin Pillar was traded, giving run to the likes of Randal Grichuk, Bradley Zimmer, an aging Jackie Bradley Jr., and, at their most desperate, the recently departed Teoscar Hernández. After bringing Varsho aboard and signing Kevin Kiermaier, the Blue Jays suddenly have three viable center fielders on their projected active roster. I think you can make the argument that Varsho is currently Kevin Kiermaier’s equal in center given the latter’s age and injury history (though Kiermaier is still better coming in on fly balls in front of him), but late-game alignments that include a combination of Varsho, Kiermaier, and a hopefully healthy George Springer will be among the best defensive outfields in baseball.

Can Varsho replace Teoscar’s bat? His underlying indicators suggest he’s due for some amount of regression. There’s a sizable gap between Varsho’s offensive output and what Statcast sees as his expected performance based on the quality of his contact. This is especially notable in the gap between his SLG (.443) and xSLG (.389). If Varsho’s true talent is the latter, it’s kind of a tough profile if his 2022 defensive performance was somehow an anomaly, or proves to be short-lived in the event that Varsho’s stocky frame slows as he enters his late 20s. Varsho’s pull rate exploded in 2022, shifting from a 38% career mark to a whopping 54.5% last year. There are some visual indications that this is sustainable, however. In the middle of the 2022 season, Varsho ditched his leg kick in favor of a more conservative toe tap, which may have helped make his timing more consistent, enabling him to pull the ball more often. With shifting in the rearview, Varsho’s BABIP (a career .272 mark) might tick up enough to counterbalance some of the power regression.

Varsho also helps to balance an extremely right-handed lineup in Toronto. Though the Blue Jays added a few internal lefty options to their 40-man this offseason (Addison Barger, Spencer Horwitz and Nathan Lukes) in addition to Kiermaier and Varsho, it is still a very right-handed lineup (and roster overall). But several of Toronto’s hitters (like Matt Chapman and Alejandro Kirk) are platoon-neutral or have reverse splits, so perhaps this wasn’t much of an issue anyway.

The 29-year-old Gurriel brings the inverse to the table for the Diamondbacks, though it surprised me that he, too, has virtually no career platoon split. Where Toronto often had an entire lineup of right-handed hitters last year, Torey Lovullo would sometimes have nothing but left-handed and switch hitters on his card, and the offseason additions of Gurriel, Kyle Lewis, Evan Longoria, and Diego Castillo (acquired from Pittsburgh for changeup artist Scott Randall) will help to balance things. Gurriel, Lewis and Longoria provide direct upgrades (and in Castillo and Lewis’ case, hope for some long-term ceiling) to Arizona’s 2022 hitters in those roles: Jordan Luplow, Stone Garrett, and slick-fielding third baseman Emmanuel Rivera.

But the real prize for the Serpents is Moreno, a 22-year-old catcher who graduated from rookie status (due to roster days, not at-bats) as the third-ranked prospect in baseball, one spot ahead of Diamondbacks outfielder Corbin Carroll. Like Varsho, Moreno was part of a deep position group that seemed primed for a trade, slotting in behind Kirk (a first time All-Star) and Danny Jansen (who sources tell me had been a part of other trade discussions leading up to this deal) on the depth chart.

Moreno hit .315/.386/.420 at Triple-A in 2022, continuing his career-long excellence in the contact department. Long lauded for his athleticism and bat-to-ball skills, some of the swings Moreno was taking late last season were absolutely ferocious, and while his downward-cutting bat path made it tough for him to elevate the baseball and hit for over-the-fence power in the minors, he looked as though he might be hitting a new gear late in 2022. The amount of contact he makes (he had an 89% in-zone contact rate last season) is remarkable considering how noisy Moreno’s swing is. His big leg kick and active hands look like the swing of a high-maintenance hitter, but this has never been an issue for Moreno — in fact, quite the contrary. He has special athleticism and bat speed for any hitter, let alone a catcher, which is part of why this swing is viable, and Moreno is adept at lining contact the other way. Even if he never fully actualizes his raw power in games, his feel for contact should make him one of the more potent offensive catchers in baseball, and if he can get to that power, he’ll be one of the better up-the-middle hitters in the sport.

Behind the plate, aside from some issues smothering balls in the dirt, Moreno is a major league-ready defensive catcher. His receiving and framing are fine, he explodes out of his one-knee’d crouch, he has a lightning-fast transfer on throws to second base with pop times hovering around 1.90, and he’s fine blocking balls directly in front of him. Because he’s always on one knee, even with runners on, if pitchers miss in the dirt to either side of him, Moreno tends to pick the baseball on a short hop rather than move laterally to get in front of it, and he isn’t always successful.

He’ll have to foster comfort and trust with Arizona’s pitching staff, but from a talent standpoint, Moreno is already better than incumbent Carson Kelly, whose offensive performance has waxed and waned as he’s dealt with a wide range of injuries. That said, an early-season timeshare may be in order, as it would give Moreno the opportunity to get his feet wet and ease into big league waters while simultaneously relieving Kelly of some of the positions’ physical demands.

How close this pulls the Diamondbacks to the Dodgers, Padres and Giants will depend on how quickly the kids mature into their primes, and whether or not the club can continue to sandbag enough pitching to deal with the attrition likely to occur among its young arms. The bullpen, especially, has a long way to go, but the D-backs have given themselves a shot to improve there with the additions of Carlos Vargas, Miguel Castro, and Scott McGough from outside the org (and in McGough’s case, from outside the league), as well as Justin Martinez and his splitter from within. The team played better baseball late in 2022 once some of the youngsters began to arrive, and ZiPS projects them to be close to a .500 team in 2023, which puts them in the mix with the Giants and lurking just behind the records of the NL’s 2022 postseason clubs. Even if he’s riskier than Varsho, who has already performed against big league pitching, Moreno’s higher long-term ceiling gives the Diamondbacks a better shot to actually contend.

For Toronto, it’s fair to assume swapping Hernández for Varsho is a neutral move so far as the big league roster is concerned, and adding Chris Bassitt to replace Ross Stripling is a clear upgrade to a team that won 92 games in 2022. The bullpen still feels a little light, though all it might take is a fully-operational Nate Pearson and/or Julian Merryweather to push the group over the edge.

Eric Longenhagen is from Catasauqua, PA and currently lives in Tempe, AZ. He spent four years working for the Phillies Triple-A affiliate, two with Baseball Info Solutions and two contributing to prospect coverage at Previous work can also be found at Sports On Earth, CrashburnAlley and Prospect Insider.

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Jeff in Jerseymember
1 year ago

I like Varsho a lot, but Moreno alone would be a good return, no?

1 year ago
Reply to  Jeff in Jersey

THe 4.6 WAR in the hand will probably always be more valued than the “we’re pretty sure” single prospect. Take a look at how many 4+ fWAR catchers there are in baseball over the past 10 years. It’s really hard to project Moreno to be one of them right away.

Last edited 1 year ago by JohnHavok
1 year ago
Reply to  JohnHavok

What are the chances Varsho has 4.6 WAR next year? A .389 xSLG with a good glove is Jackie Bradley Jr.

1 year ago
Reply to  airforce21one

His barrel rate went way up though, which for ZIPS now appears to have more predictive value than any of the x stats. They have him at a 117 ops+ next year

Last edited 1 year ago by theflusher
1 year ago
Reply to  airforce21one

JBJ was putting up ~2-4 WAR seasons when he was slugging in the neighborhood of .400 (plus one 5+ WAR year when he spiked to almost .500), so I think the Jays would be okay with that outcome!

1 year ago
Reply to  D-Wiz


1 year ago
Reply to  JohnHavok

Varsho isn’t a 4.6 win catcher. He’s an outfielder and his value is tied to his defense. If his bat regresses at all he’s going to be worth well below 4.6 wins this year

Last edited 1 year ago by datdudepch
1 year ago
Reply to  JohnHavok

In 22′ Varsho played 30 games at C, none after July.

1 year ago
Reply to  JohnHavok

From a fantasy standpoint, I 100% agree with you. From an MLB trade standpoint, though, Varsho is an OF with a 4.6 WAR plus a little roster benefit if they choose to move Jansen and actually let him catch some.

1 year ago
Reply to  cnordhielm

What would the Jays trade Jansen for?
They have no Jansen-equivalent holes left.

Varsho’s main value at C is late in the game as third catcher. Single-digit appearances, barring injuries.

Looks like a fair trade, that can go either way for both teams but both sides have a playable floor and significant upside.

1 year ago
Reply to  Jeff in Jersey

Gurriel has very little value. A 1-2 WAR LFer with 1 year left on his deal wouldn’t bring back very much on its own.

1 year ago
Reply to  Glevin

yeah, he was just a throw in because the jays had no use for him

1 year ago
Reply to  Glevin

I think the Jays were actually over the tax line…and now they’re not.

1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Roster Resource thinks they’re over, and their front office has been talking as if they are, too.

1 year ago
Reply to  joedrew

It’s showing the Blue Jays at an estimated 233.27M with the tax line at 233M — I think they’ll manage to shave 270k somewhere if it gets them like 12M or whatever the luxury tax payout is. All they need to do is go slightly under some of the projected arbitration payouts or maybe have one small salary dump.