Anatomy of a deal; Catching up with Daulton Varsho and Carson Kelly

DUNEDIN, Fla. – Those who engineer trades and generate transactions tend to wax positive. After all, who would be in denial of an attempt to improve their club?

When the Toronto Blue Jays and Arizona Diamondbacks orchestrated the most significant trade of the 2022-2023 off-season, the obvious objective was an attempt to improve. The Diamondbacks needed a right-handed power-hitting outfielder and a catcher and the Jays sought defensive improvement in the outfield. In a deal that sent outfielder Lourdes Gurriel, Jr. and catcher Gabriel Moreno from Toronto to Arizona in exchange for outfielder Daulton Varsho, the trade heralded a transitional period for both clubs.

In reality, the Diamondbacks benefited greatly. Then again, only year one is in the books. Both Gurriel and Moreno helped catapult the Diamondbacks deep into the post-season and the World Series. Varsho’s production was less noteworthy.

In his initial season with the Jays, Varsho batted .220 in 158 games. That was below the aggregate number with Arizona. In parts of three seasons in the desert, the 27-year-old batted a combined .234.

This time, Varsho believes his production will increase. While there remains the attempt to eschew any competitive level to match (Gurriel, .261 in 145 games with 24 homers, and 82 RBIs) and Moreno, (.284 in 111 games), there is a quiet expectation to silent skeptics.

“The adjustment part coming over here was hard and that’s because you’re meeting a whole new clubhouse, new team, new staff,” Varsho said earlier this spring from the Jays camp here. “It took an adjustment period to be myself again.”

This time, Varsho challenged himself to perform within his means and capacity. With the bat going forward this season, he said, “I’m trying to hit the ball at the pitcher every time. Not aiming for the power gaps and the fence. If I do things correctly, that will come.”

In the first week of spring games, Varsho was hitting above .500 and noted a more educational approach to the plate will pay dividends.

 “I put so much pressure on myself to overperform and to do more than what I need to do,” he said. “That’s what got away from me. Now, I’m trusting myself instead and not trying to hit a homer on every single pitch. That got in the way of trying to do too much. But, I never took it out on the defense, and I’m very proud of that.”

Given the dynamics of the trade, Toronto’s decision-makers remain on task. That is, Varsho continues on their radar screen and is an important component of both the offense and defense. When the Jays open the season at Tropicana Field against Tampa Bay on March 28, Varsho will be in left field, and help anchor an outfield of George Springer and Kevin Kiermaier.

“We are very committed to the player we acquired,” said Toronto manager John Schneider. “He’s one of the most well-liked guys in the clubhouse. He’s really easy to like because he never takes a play off. We’re looking for a little bit of a bounce-back year from him. I’m looking for him to take a step, offensively and continue to play elite outfield defense.”

If the Jays seek offensive improvement, the trade, initially, clearly profited the Diamondbacks. While Gurriel supplied needed power from a solid right-handed bat from the outfield, Moreno emerged as an important two-way player.  Aside from offensive production and eventually hitting in the three-hole during the World Series, Moreno’s defensive skills tended to be overlooked.

An observation, as early as last spring at Salt River, created a window into what the season held for Moreno and how he emerged as a significant contributor.

“I did not hear a ton about him (before last spring training) but I knew he was a great player and a great defender, great numbers in the minor leagues and what he did was very impressive,” said catcher Carson Kelly, now with Detroit. “Nothing changed with Gabi, He was not phased by the moment and not star-struck. He came in, did his job, and took care of business.”

At Salt River, Kelly was penciled as the number one catcher on the Diamondbacks’ depth chart and was prepared to mentor Moreno. During a pre-season game with the Chicago White Sox at Camelback Ranch, Kelly was struck on the left arm with a pitched ball, suffered a broken arm, and immediately, Moreno was thrust to the top of the depth chart.

There, Moreno took the unfortunate circumstance to Kelly (whom the Diamondbacks released in the middle of last season) and proceeded to launch a trajectory among elite catchers in the game.

“Once a player realizes they can play at the big-league level, then they take off,” Kelly added. “That’s what he did. It’s fun to watch, He’s a tremendous player and I’m excited for what the future holds for him.”

Given the see-saw reality of the trade, the hope for the Jays is that Varsho can escape the doldrums of a .220-.235 hotter. With sporadic power, his contribution going forward remains uncertain and it is undefined.

This is why Ross Atkins, the Jays’ general manager, challenges the popular notion that Varsho’s production was dubious.

“(Varsho) had a solid year for us,” Atkins said. “Probably underappreciated within the industry. Just a very solid year and especially gaining through a big trade and coming into a winning environment with really high expectations.

That positive refrain which points to a successful trade for all parties became obvious.

“Was this a ‘win-win’ for both teams?” Atkins asked.” You always want that outcome to be good for both teams. I’m happy for the Diamondbacks, but so excited to have Daulton here.”

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