The Blue Jays' unexpected beneficiary of the Moreno-Varsho trade

2023 breakout playoff star Gabriel Moreno has ratcheted up the pressure on the Blue Jays’ front office to extend catcher Danny Jansen, who’s entering his final year of arbitration in 2024.
Toronto Blue Jays v Colorado Rockies
Toronto Blue Jays v Colorado Rockies / Dustin Bradford/GettyImages

With young catcher Gabriel Moreno proving to be a breakout star in the 2023 postseason, the pressure is on Toronto’s front office to make sure that they extend catcher Danny Jansen beyond the 2024 season.

After trading Moreno, their top prospect - and at one-time the top prospect in all of baseball - in a “win now” move for OF Daulton Varsho, there should be a strong incentive to lock him up longer term now as another consequence of that trade. To avoid further embarrassment after Moreno and Lourdes Gurriel Jr., combined for a +7.2 bWAR this year compared to Varsho’s +3.9, and helped lead the Diamondbacks to the World Series, they need to lock down Jansen’s future in Toronto.

Given Jansen is in the final year of arbitration eligibility going into the 2024 season, and is a potential free agent after next season, there should be an incentive to clear up the catching picture beyond next year. The 23-year-old Moreno won’t be a free agent until 2029, so if the Jays were to lose Jansen after the upcoming season, with Alejandro Kirk a potential free agent at the end of 2026, it could be an ongoing painful reminder if Moreno continues developing as a franchise catcher in Arizona.

Jansen is projected to earn $5.2M in arbitration for the 2024 season, but could be extended longer term with that final year of arbitration bought out in a multi-year deal. Comparable players include Seattle catcher Cal Raleigh and Braves catcher Sean Murphy; Raleigh isn’t arbitration eligible yet, so the six-year, $73M ($12.2M AAV) deal Murphy signed with the Braves as a 28-year-old last December might be a ‘high water’ mark to use as a reference for a Jansen extension.

In his age 28 season this year in Atlanta, Murphy played 108 games with 438 plate appearances, and slashed .251/.365/.478/.844 with 21 home runs, 68 RBI and had an OPS+ of 125. Jansen’s numbers this year were on a similar trajectory before he was hit with a foul tip in early September and had surgery on his right middle finger, causing him to miss the rest of the season. In 86 games and 301 plate appearances, he hammered 17 home runs with 53 RBI, and slashed .228/.312/.474/.786 and had an OPS+ of 115.

The combination of Jansen and Kirk is seen as one of the best catching tandems in the game, and allowed the Blue Jays to trade from a perceived position of strength last year for the left-handed-swinging Varsho. That clearly helped to improve the outfield defense and run prevention, which were both stated goals of the front office last offseason.

According to Statcast, Kirk is one of the best catchers at blocking in baseball, trailing only Murphy at 14 blocks above average in 2023. He was also top 15 in the league in catcher framing as measured by his five runs saved, based on converting strikes to runs saved on a .125 run/strike basis. Jansen ranked 26th at two runs saved. Moreno was 37th at -1 run saved.

Based on total Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) above average, the trade worked for both teams. Varsho recorded a DRS of +29 to lead all outfielders, Kirk was at +17, Jansen was -2, and Moreno was a +20 to lead all catchers. According to Statmuse, the D-backs also went 61-50 (.550) with Moreno catching, while the Blue Jays are 216-193 (.528) all-time with Jansen catching in 409 games, and 180-151 (.544) with Kirk in 331 games.

While all of Varsho, Kirk and Moreno are Gold Glove finalists at their respective positions in 2023, the renewed focus on stolen bases following rule changes this season have highlighted Moreno’s league leading ability to throw out base runners trying to steal 2B, with the seventh best ‘pop time’ in baseball at 1.90 seconds versus Kirk at 1.98 seconds (48th) and Jansen at 1.99 (62nd). That led to a caught stealing rate at 2B of 48% for Moreno versus 18% for Kirk and 15% for Jansen.

With nearly $60M in payroll and retained salary coming off the books, and the competitive balance (“luxury”) tax threshold rising to $237M in 2024, the Blue Jays could certainly afford to lock Jansen up for 5-6 years at $10M+ AAV. And it would help clarify the catching picture beyond next season.