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Diamondbacks' blockbuster trade with Blue Jays paid big dividends in Year 1

Jesse Friedman Avatar
December 23, 2023
Arizona Diamondbacks designated hitter Lourdes Gurriel Jr. (12) is congratulated by catcher Gabriel Moreno (14) after hitting a three-run home run in the fifth inning against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park.

One year is not enough to fully judge the trade that the Diamondbacks and Toronto Blue Jays made one year ago.

But it is enough to say that the Diamondbacks would likely not have made the World Series — or even the playoffs, for that matter — without it.

On Dec. 23, 2022, the Diamondbacks dealt outfielder Daulton Varsho to the Toronto Blue Jays in exchange for outfielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and catcher Gabriel Moreno. Varsho came with four years of team control, Moreno with six years. Gurriel was entering the final year of his deal, but the Diamondbacks re-signed him to a three-year deal earlier this week.

Gurriel was productive in 2023 with the Diamondbacks. He slashed .261/.309/.463 with 24 homers, 82 RBI and a 108 OPS+. He also had arguably his best year ever on defense, tallying a career-high 14 defensive runs saved in left field. Underlying indicators offer a favorable outlook on how well his hitting could age over time.

Throughout the Diamondbacks’ extended postseason run, however, it was not Gurriel who hit third in the majority of the team’s 17 postseason games. It was Moreno.

Moreno, who came in at No. 3 on Baseball America’s mid-2022 prospect rankings, had only 73 major-league plate appearances under his belt at the time of the trade.

In his first full season in Arizona, Moreno hit .284/.339/.408 with seven homers, 50 RBI and six stolen bases in 111 games. He also won the NL Gold Glove Award at catcher. With 4.3 bWAR, he tied Baltimore Orioles star Adley Rutschman for the highest bWAR total in baseball by a catcher.

On the flip side, Varsho had a down year offensively with the Blue Jays in 2023. After posting a 106 OPS+ with the Diamondbacks from 2021-22, Varsho posted an 85 OPS+ in 2023, slashing .220/.285/.389 for the Blue Jays with 20 homers, 61 RBI and 16 stolen bases.

In spite of the snag he hit offensively, Varsho still posted an impressive 3.9 bWAR in 2023 thanks to his superior defense. He led all major-league outfielders with 29 defensive runs saved.

If Varsho can find a way to combine that elite glovework with a breakout offensively, he would be a star. Entering his age-27 season, he still seemingly has a chance to do just that.

In Moreno, the Diamondbacks might have found a star of their own. They are slated to have him for another five seasons, compared to three for Varsho.

At what point during the Diamondbacks’ postseason run in October, Hazen was asked how he views the Moreno-Varsho-Gurriel trade in retrospect.

“I think that trade is still a win for both sides honestly,” Hazen said. “Daulton Varsho is an elite defensive player. He has power. Gabi has had a fantastic season. So has Lourdes. Would we be here without them? No.”

Given that the Diamondbacks lost veteran catcher Carson Kelly to a fractured forearm in spring training, Hazen said that the Diamondbacks could have been poorly positioned at catcher had they not had Moreno ready to step in.

Hazen also said that Moreno’s ability to shut down the running game was particularly crucial in a season in which new rules caused a surge in stolen bases. Moreno graded out as MLB’s best base-stealing preventer in 2023, according to Statcast.

While Gurriel is not the same player as Varsho defensively, Gurriel outperformed Varsho offensively in 2023, and he provided much-needed right-handed balance to the Diamondbacks’ lineup. The Diamondbacks also lacked a clear long-term solution at catcher at the time. They checked both of those boxes by dealing from a position of strength.

In similar fashion, the Blue Jays had prioritized outfield defense, and Varsho figured to serve as a big upgrade over Gurriel in that regard. They had tremendous depth at catcher, allowing them to part ways with Moreno. The deal made sense for both sides.

However, with Moreno turning in an exceptional first full season in the majors, Gurriel belting 24 homers as a key middle-of-the-order presence and Varsho taking a step back offensively, the Diamondbacks, on paper, got the better side of the deal in year one.

Perhaps it is surprising now that, at the time of the deal, there was skepticism from Diamondbacks fans and players alike.

Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Gabriel Moreno celebrate their 4-2 win over the Philadelphia Phillies in Game 7 of the NLCS. (Joe Rondone/The Republic)

Given the Diamondbacks’ clear surplus of left-handed hitting outfielders, the question entering last winter was not so much if they would trade one, but whom it would be.

The posse of lefty outfielders at the time included Varsho, Corbin Carroll, Alek Thomas, Jake McCarthy, Dominic Fletcher and Dominic Canzone.

When Hazen settled on Varsho as the odd man out, he did not expect it to be well-received in the clubhouse. Varsho was the best established of the group at the time, and, by fWAR, the team’s most valuable position player in 2022.

“I don’t blame them for wanting more explanation for that,” Hazen said of dealing Varsho when the trade was finalized. “And I don’t ask them to blindly trust us. Trust is earned. And frankly, over the last couple of years, I haven’t really done that.

“But we have a fairly robust thought process behind what we’re doing and why we’re trying to get where we’re going. I think there’s a respect and an 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.”

Of all the terms that could be used to describe the Diamondbacks’ side of the trade, “risk” might be the most fitting.

The Diamondbacks traded four years of an established, productive 26-year-old (Varsho) for one year of a less productive player (Gurriel) and a 22-year-old catcher with lofty prospect status but little major-league experience. For a team coming off a 74-win season and looking to take the next step toward contention, it was a gamble.

Daulton Varsho defense highlights with Diamondbacks, 2022

Of course, the Diamondbacks could have opted to deal one of their less-established outfielders instead. However, Hazen said that it was necessary to deal Varsho to get the level of impact they were looking for in return.

The move represented a pivot of sorts in trade strategy for Hazen. Under his regime, the Diamondbacks had generally sought relatively large groups of players in return when parting with top major-league players. For example, the team dealt starting pitcher Zack Greinke to the Houston Astros in 2019 in exchange for four prospects. A year later, the Diamondbacks obtained three players from the Miami Marlins for outfielder Starling Marte.

In this deal, Hazen and company exchanged the comfort that comes with distributing risk among several players for the potential ceiling that comes with fewer, more highly-touted impactful players.

Gurriel was just a one-year rental at the time, so much of that potential impact was centered around Moreno. Pinning so much of the success of the deal on one player was a risk. But Hazen also felt that this was his only shot to acquire him.

“[After] a year in the big leagues and a full season of play,” Hazen said of Moreno, “I think I make a phone call on this player and I don’t get a response.”

Now, Hazen views Moreno in much the same way that he suspected the Blue Jays would around this time. Any team wanting to acquire him will not make it far.

“I’ll pick up the phone,” Hazen said at the winter meetings earlier this month. “I’ll say thank you. And then I’ll change the subject.”

Granted, the fact that Moreno is seemingly untouchable for the Diamondbacks does not necessarily mean that they won the trade. Only one year has gone by since the trade. Moreno still has more to prove. Varsho could emerge into a star with even slightly-above-average offensive production. Gurriel is back with the Diamondbacks on a new contract, but his contributions over the next few years are really a separate matter from the initial deal.

For now, Moreno is a big reason why the future of Diamondbacks baseball seems bright. In 2023, his role evolved from Carson Kelly understudy to Opening Day starter to No. 3 hitter in the World Series. He consistently rose to the occasion. If the long-term success of last year’s blockbuster hinges on Moreno’s success, then the Diamondbacks are seemingly in good hands.

Follow Jesse Friedman on X

Top photo: Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY Sports

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