The Diamondbacks did some last-minute Christmas shopping on Friday, acquiring catcher Gabriel Moreno and outfielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr. from the Toronto Blue Jays in exchange for outfielder Daulton Varsho.
Moreno, 22, was ranked by both MLB Pipeline and Baseball America as the seventh-best prospect in baseball entering the 2022 season. He is currently listed at No. 3 in Baseball America’s rankings — two spots ahead of Diamondbacks outfielder Corbin Carroll.
“He has the ability to be an impact catcher behind the plate, offensively and defensively,” Diamondbacks general manager Mike Hazen said. “He’s a really good hitter. He’s always been a good hitter. He’s hit since the day he came into baseball. I think that’s the reason that people think as highly as they do.”
Moreno got his first taste of the big leagues in 2022, slashing .319/.356/.377 in 25 games. He is a career .310/.365/.479 hitter over 1,069 plate appearances in the minors, including a .315/.386/.420 batting line in 62 games with Triple-A Buffalo in 2022. In addition to his impressive hit tool, he has a strong arm and is generally well-regarded defensively. Had he not been blocked by a pair of excellent catchers in Toronto, he could have played a lot more big-league innings in 2022.
Gurriel Jr. has only one year of club control remaining, but has been an above-average hitter every year since making his major-league debut in 2018. Most recently, the 29-year-old slashed .291/.343/.400 in 2022 with five homers, 52 RBI and 32 doubles in 121 games. Although he’s spent time at shortstop and second base in the past, the Blue Jays used him primarily in left field in 2022, with occasional starts at first base and DH. Hazen said his current expectation is for Gurriel to play in the outfield, along with some potential opportunity at DH.
For the D-backs, the price to acquire Moreno and Gurriel was significant. Based on FanGraphs WAR, Varsho was the Diamondbacks’ most valuable player in 2022, in large part because of his exceptional outfield defense. Varsho received Gold Glove nominations in both the utility and right field categories, and arguably should have won in right field. He led all MLB outfielders with 18 outs above average in 2022.
“Very difficult…parting with Daulton,” Hazen said. “We drafted him, developed him through our system. One of the players that we’re very proud to have on our team and in our organization.”
Offensively, Varsho graded out as slightly above average in 2022, slashing .235/.302/.443 with 27 homers, 23 doubles and 74 RBI. His power output took a big step forward this past season, and the D-backs will struggle to replace it. Outside of Varsho, only Christian Walker hit more than 12 homers for the team in 2022.
Frankly, neither Moreno nor Gurriel Jr. are likely to make up the difference. Hazen did not discount that loss, but believes the hit-first mindset of his two new hitters can still be effective in scoring runs.
“We lost some home runs off our lineup today, but I feel like we’re…replacing it in a different way,” Hazen said. “I’m hoping the contact, the on-base, the ability to hit, the two-strike approach is going to lend itself to making our lineup even tougher to face with the way…some of those kids are going to be running around the bases.”
While the D-backs will miss a lot about Varsho’s bat, it’s worth noting that all but one of his 27 homers came against righties, and he has yet to show the ability to hit lefties consistently in the big leagues.
In 2022, Varsho slashed just .221/.250/.303 against southpaws, a slight step back from the year prior. He also pulled the ball at a higher rate than any major-league hitter in 2022 (minimum 450 plate appearances), which points to some potential vulnerabilities in his approach. MLB’s new shift restrictions will likely help him next season, but his knack for hitting the ball in the air will limit how much he can benefit.
Nonetheless, despite Varsho’s imperfections with the bat, his defense is so spectacular that a slightly-above-average offensive profile is good enough to make him one of baseball’s most valuable outfielders. At 26, there is also still a chance he takes another step offensively and blossoms into a star. He’ll slot in nicely alongside George Springer and Kevin Kermaier in Toronto, forming what should be one of the best outfield defenses in baseball.
For the D-backs, outfield is an area of surplus, even after the trade. In addition to Gurriel, they still have Jake McCarthy, Alek Thomas, Corbin Carroll and several young outfielders waiting in the wings in Dominic Fletcher, Dominic Canzone and Jorge Barrosa. November trade acquisition Kyle Lewis could see some time in the outfield as well. Varsho is not replaceable, but the D-backs are relatively well-equipped to fill the void.
Granted, Varsho was still the most well-established outfielder the team had, and it is fair to wonder why the team didn’t trade one of its younger, less established outfielders instead. The answer, according to Hazen, is that the difference in return between Varsho and one of those other outfielders was significant.
“It was going to be less,” he said. “There were going to be fewer players. It may have been a one-for-one. It may have been a one-for-one where we were ceding a lot of control, which we didn’t feel good about.”
The difference in return is unsurprising. Despite solid offensive performance over his first two months in the big leagues, Thomas’ offensive numbers plummeted in August and September last year. Eventually, the D-backs sent him down to Triple-A Reno, where he spent the rest of the year. While Thomas’ center field defense and prospect pedigree would have been enough to land a meaningful trade return, one could argue the D-backs would have been selling low.
McCarthy, on the other hand, performed well in the final months and ended the year with an impressive .284/.342/.427 batting line with 23 stolen bases. Still, McCarthy’s batted ball data suggested he could be due to regress, and it stands to reason other teams might not have viewed him as highly as his surface-level numbers suggest.
Aside from Carroll — who has reportedly been untouchable all along — Varsho was the most valuable trade asset the D-backs had. Ultimately, Hazen said he and his staff “debated and wrestled” with the notion of trading him, but concluded that the alternative — running it back with a similar roster — would not have moved the ball forward.
It was the kind of decision Hazen knows could be tough to swallow for Varsho’s former teammates. Hazen made it a point to reach out to as many as he could to explain the thinking behind the trade.
“We tried to make some contacts in a number of ways knowing that this trade wouldn’t necessarily be uniformly received or understood,” he said. “I think there’s a respect and understanding of the situation we’re in relative to some of the teams in our division and what we may need to do and the risks we need to take and the bets we need to make to put the best team on the field.”
For Hazen, the nature of this deal was different from how he’s operated in the past. Since his tenure began prior to the 2017 season, the D-backs have generally targeted several players — typically three or four — when dealing high-end big-leaguers.
“Those trades haven’t gone so great,” Hazen said on Friday.
In this deal, the team emphasized quality over quantity, bringing back a potentially elite talent in Moreno, with one year of Gurriel Jr. basically serving as icing on the cake. With fewer players, of course, comes more risk. Given how good Varsho already is and the fact that he has four years of club control remaining, the simple truth is the D-backs need Moreno to be very, very good for this deal to pan out.
The good news for D-backs fans is that many scouts expect him to be just that. Frankly, trading a prospect as highly touted as Moreno, particularly one that already has performed well in the majors, is unheard of. It would be similar to the D-backs moving Carroll — a notion that, rightfully, would be shunned by the entirety of the fanbase.
The Blue Jays are just in a bizarre situation. Even after losing Moreno, they still have a stellar catching duo in Alejandro Kirk and Danny Jansen, the former being controllable for four more seasons. In 2022, Jays catchers produced a combined 7.3 fWAR, the most in baseball and the most by any team since the 2017 Los Angeles Dodgers.
With Moreno, the D-backs have a chance to join only a handful teams that actually get good offensive production from the catching position. Based on weighted runs created plus (wRC+), only eight teams got above-league-average offense from their catchers in 2022. The D-backs were not one of them, ranking 24th in wRC+ and 25th in fWAR at the catching position.
Carson Kelly, of course, got the majority of the reps behind the plate for the D-backs in 2022. While he has shown flashes of above-average offense at times, he’s struggled to stay consistent. With Moreno now in the fold, Kelly could theoretically become a trade chip to help fill another needs on the roster. Hazen, however, said Kelly remains an important part of the team.
“This deal isn’t just about Moreno,” he said. “This isn’t about him coming in here and having to take over that position. We feel like this is a good runway for him. We very much still believe in Carson and what he can do, and he has the experience on our staff to lead the pitchers.”
Ultimately, Friday’s blockbuster deal was an old-fashioned, I-need-this-you-need-that type of trade. On paper, it made a lot of sense for both sides. The Diamondbacks dealt from their surplus of outfielders to land what could be the team’s franchise catcher for years to come. The Jays dealt from their surplus of catchers for four years of one of baseball’s most valuable outfielders.
Anyone who thinks the D-backs fleeced the Blue Jays doesn’t recognize just how valuable Varsho is. And anyone who thinks the Blue Jays fleeced the D-backs doesn’t recognize how rare it is for a prospect of Moreno’s caliber to even be moved in the first place.
Said Hazen: “I feel like [after] a year in the big leagues and a full season of play, I think I make a phone call on [Moreno] and I don’t get a response.”
The D-backs need him to become that player. By all accounts, he might be just that.
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