Skip to main content


Blue Jays relying on elite outfield defence to help them take next step

Daulton Varsho Arizona Diamondbacks Daulton Varsho - Getty Images

TORONTO — Back in mid-November, the Toronto Blue Jays kickstarted the MLB off-season by shipping two-time Silver Slugger Teoscar Hernandez to the Seattle Mariners to begin an important process of remixing their outfield situation.

On the eve of the holiday season, they finished off that remix, engineering a blockbuster trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks to acquire Daulton Varsho. The 26-year-old is an elite outfield defender, a vital lefty bat, and a much-needed combination of speed and athleticism that immediately gives the lineup a much different look.

Along with the free-agent addition of Kevin Kiermaier in between those two moves, Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins has completely changed the complexion of the talent they’ll trot out onto the grass in 2023, and it’s now arguably one of the best outfield defences in baseball.

While there’s likely another depth addition coming in the form of a platoon or fourth-outfielder type, the trio of Varsho in left, Kiermaier in centre and veteran George Springer in right field is what you’re going to see the majority of next season, health permitting.

It’s a much, much different dynamic and with the outfield dimensions changing at Rogers Centre next season — as well as the nightmares of a certain postseason loss still lingering — improving the glovework was one of the front office’s top priorities heading into the winter.

Consider that accomplished.

“We’ve been entirely focused on preventing more runs and we feel like we’ve made huge strides in that area,” Atkins said Saturday morning on a call with the handful of beat scribes not already in holiday mode. “All too often the industry, everyone in the game focuses so much on pitching and certainly never loses sight of the impact of defence, but it’s a harder thing to quantify, it’s a harder thing to measure the impact of. The industry’s better at it than they were, and we feel like we’ve improved at it a great deal and just made significant strides that way.”

They’ve also improved the rotation by importing reliable veteran right-handed Chris Bassitt and improved a bullpen that returns nearly intact from last season with the addition of righty Erik Swanson from Seattle in the Hernandez trade.

With outfielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr. heading to Arizona alongside the centrepiece in catcher Gabriel Moreno, the offence is down two, at times, productive corner outfielders, replaced by Varsho’s potential 30-plus homers and Kiermaier’s light bat but solid speed and base-running.

The current iteration of the lineup may be even on punch when compared to last year’s, but it’s a more diverse group with much more speed and athleticism.

With about eight weeks to go until pitchers and catchers show up to spring training in Dunedin, the Jays are likely to be fairly quiet for the rest of the off-season, other than a handful of depth additions across the roster.

“I think our heavy lifting is done but certainly not ruling anything out and would expect some incremental improvements, but very excited about this impact and feel good about the previous acquisitions that we’ve made as well,” Atkins said.

A bat will be added at some point, and it’s very likely to be someone who can complement the trio of outfielders currently in place.

Utility player Whit Merrifield’s presence and versatility gives them options, but a right-handed hitting outfielder who could spell the left-handed hitting Kiermaier and/or Varsho against southpaws would make sense.

Atkins said they’re not necessarily focused on which side a player hits from moving forward.

“We’re in a good spot and we’ll look to improve our team from the subtraction of Gurriel, but in our view it doesn’t need to be right-handed or left-handed, it’s more about the impact and the fit beyond that,” he said.

Varsho, who will also serve as an important third catcher on the roster with Alejandro Kirk’s high-contact bat fitting nicely in the DH spot, brings a whole lot to the table.

After slashing .235/.302/.443 with 27 homers and 16 stolen bases in a breakout campaign in 2022, there could be even more in the tank offensively for Varsho as he enters his prime.

The new shift ban could help the lefty in the average department and AL East ballparks should play nicely with his pull-side power stroke.

Varsho’s 4.6 fWAR last season would’ve been the best mark amongst Jays position players, just ahead of Bo Bichette’s 4.5.

Quietly, Varsho is an analytical star, and he fits what the front office wants in its clubhouse.

“From a personality and teammate standpoint, he’s a hard-nosed gamer that loves the process, loves the work,” Atkins said.

“The base-running impact, the speed, the versatility, elite defence. The fact that he can also catch for us is about as good of a fit that we possibly could have found. I think it is the ideal fit for this roster and one we are very excited about.”

You have to give to get in these types of trades, especially with Varsho controlled through the 2026 season, fitting right into this win-now push over the next three seasons.

And the Jays definitely gave in this trade.

Moreno was the organization’s top prospect and a consensus top 10 prospect in baseball.

Those types of assets aren’t traded often, but the Jays were in a very unique position with three excellent options behind the plate.

Some organizations are scouring far and wide just to find one.

Moving forward with the veteran leader in Danny Jansen and one of the top offensive catchers in baseball in Kirk makes all the sense in the world.

This trade was on the front-burner for Atkins all off-season, but it took years to make this deal happen with all sorts of interest in all three names for at least three straight winters.

“It was interesting,” Atkins said. “I’ve never been in a situation like this where we had so much interest in all of the catchers. Every single catcher had significant interest from every team (we were talking to) so that put us in a strong position to look for a more ideal fit and not just a good value deal, and we were able to do it.

“It was exceptionally difficult thinking about taking players who had such large impacts on our team off of our roster. But at the same time, we felt so good about Gabby’s potential impact with us that we were listening on all three. Having said that, the leadership component, the relationship component we felt to be of significance and meaningful with Kirk and Jano and that was something that had to be factored in in any subtraction.”

The Diamondbacks roster, as well as Atkins’ relationship with GM counterpart Mike Hazen, allowed this deal to come together pretty seamlessly once the free-agent dominoes fell.

“It absolutely was a great fit with their surplus of outfielders, specifically left-handed hitting centre fielders and us having a surplus of catching and their need,” Atkins said. “Right from the start, we felt that was going to be a very important team and fit. From the very beginning of the off-season that dialogue began.

“As far as iterations, it was similar. All three catchers were of some interest to them and all of their outfielders were of some interest to us. The component that made it challenging is that we were both trying to consolidate more talent on our major-league roster. They are looking to take steps forward obviously and push the envelope on the winning front and that’s why Lourdes Gurriel came into the picture and made this deal work.”

With the outfield remixed in a few different ways and the pitching staff improved, the Jays will head into 2023 with more talent on paper than they finished with in October.

Is it a better mix and will they regret trading Moreno?

Only time will tell.