Toronto Blue Jays: Where they stand in the AL East after acquiring Daulton Varsho

Arizona Diamondbacks v San Diego Padres
Arizona Diamondbacks v San Diego Padres / Sean M. Haffey/GettyImages
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With 62 days left until Spring Training and just under 100 days until Opening Day 2023, the Toronto Blue Jays continue to radically alter their lineup this offseason, trading starting left fielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and top catching prospect Gabriel Moreno to the Arizona Diamondbacks in a blockbuster deal for 26 year old, left-handed hitting outfielder/catcher Daulton Varsho.

Could this be a move similar to the December 1990 trade made by then-General Manager Pat Gillick for OF Devon White, who went on to win five Gold Gloves and two World Series championships as a Blue Jay?

The move continues the clear pattern this offseason of upgrading the Blue Jays run prevention ability - at the expense of offense. Right fielder Teoscar Hernández (2.8 bWAR in 2022 with an OPS+ of 127, BABIP .335 and wRC+ of 129) was traded last month to Seattle for reliever Erik Swanson, who can generate ‘swing and miss’ to the tune of 70 strikeouts in only 53.2 innings pitched in 2022. He struck out 34% of batters faced this season (11.7/9 innings) versus the MLB average of only 22.1%, and only walked 4.9% of hitters faced, with a minuscule 1.68 ERA.

Free agent Chris Bassitt was signed to be the No. 3 starter in the rotation. He’s elite at generating weak contact, with an average exit velocity off the opponents’ bat of only 85.7mph - good for 95th percentile in MLB - and a hard hit percentage of only 32.8% versus the MLB average 35.8%. While his ERA and FIP at 3.42 and 3.66, respectively, were higher in 2022 than the starter he replaces in the Jays’ rotation, Ross Stripling (3.01, 3.11), he’s also been more consistent in pitching 5.9 innings per start on average since 2020 over 68 starts, and 6.1 innings on average in his 30 starts in 2022; Strip only averaged just over 5 innings per start this year, and averaged 4.8 innings/start over 45 starts as a Blue Jay since 2020.

Free agent center fielder Kevin Kiermaier (2022 bWAR 1.1, OPS+ 89, BABIP .290, wRC+ 90) was signed to a one year, $9M deal to bring his three-time Gold Glove winning platinum glove to Toronto. He’ll likely push George Springer to a corner outfield spot, which will be an upgrade over both Hernández and Gurriel defensively.

Hernández had a -3 defensive runs saved (DRS) in 2022 and a cumulative -8 since 2020. He was a -5 in terms of outs above average (OAA) in 2022. Gurriel posted a DRS of +3 over 896.2 innings played in LF this year after +6 last season. Springer is a cumulative -5 DRS for Toronto in CF since 2021, but has a cumulative DRS of +12 in RF since his rookie season in 2014. He’ll likely be shifted to an outfield corner more often in 2023 to reduce the wear-and-tear on his joints, allowing Kiermaier to patrol center, where he has a cumulative DRS of +134 since his rookie year in 2014, including +25 since 2020. He’s been good for total OAA of +71 since 2016.

And now the Jays have acquired OF/C Daulton Varsho from the Diamondbacks, which further strengthens the outfield defense. Varsho, who was a finalist for the NL Gold Glove in RF, tied for second among MLB outfielders with a DRS of +19 this season, including +14 in 541.2 innings played in RF (OAA +10) and +5 in 378.2 innings played in CF (OAA +8). His OAA of +18 led all MLB outfielders. He fills a big need in the hitting lineup as well with his left-handedness, and was good for a bWAR of 4.9 in 2022, with an OPS+ of 109, BABIP of .269 and wRC+ of 106 with 27 home runs in a much weaker Arizona lineup. He should benefit from better protection in the Jays’ batting lineup, where he replaces Gurriel’s 2.2 bWAR, OPS+ 113, BABIP .346 and wRC+ of 114.

Payroll Implications

By subtracting the one year and $5.8M left on the Gurriel contract, of which the AAV of $3.1M counts against the luxury tax payroll, RosterResource puts the updated Blue Jays luxury tax payroll just above the CBT threshold of $233M. Varsho qualified for Super Two status this offseason with his 2.128 years of MLB service time, which makes him eligible for arbitration this offseason even though he hasn’t accumulated three years of service time yet. Per RosterResource, he’s projected to earn $2.8M in 2023.

Amongst teams in the AL East, the Blue Jays trail only the NY Yankees’ $292M estimated CBT payroll. Arguably the Jays front office have done exactly what they said they would at the beginning of the offseason in focusing on run prevention and pitching, as well as on improving the balance in the Blue Jays batting lineup. But including in Gurriel in the trade for Varsho could be construed as a luxury tax driven move?