Sometimes, a team finds itself in a complicated situation. All of the pieces put together should be enough to win a championship, but for whatever reason, it doesn’t break that way. There are two ways to deal with this; stand pat and hope that things get better – the path chosen by the Washington Capitals, or trade one of your better players to shake things up – the path chosen by the Toronto Raptors.
From both examples in other sports, you can see that sometimes, the right answer could be either or, it’s never obvious. That is what makes this offseason more difficult than most others for the Toronto Blue Jays, and general manager, Ross Atkins.
Although the Blue Jays made the postseason in 2022, the ending was far from satisfactory, being swept by the Seattle Mariners, blowing an 8-1 lead they held in the fifth inning. They were streaky in the regular season, finishing with a 92-70 record, but trailing the New York Yankees by seven games in the race for the American League East. Evidently, none of it was good enough for Atkins, who got to work quickly in the offseason.
The first order of business; figure out what to do with Teoscar Hernandez. The 2023 season will be the final season of control for Hernandez, and rather than risk losing him for nothing next winter, Atkins decided the best course of action was to use the somewhat valuable outfielder to address other places of need, sending him to the Mariners in exchange for relief pitcher Erik Swanson, and pitching prospect, Adam Macko.
“No trade is ever easy and always comes down to alternatives for both sides,” Atkins said after making the trade. “Fortunately it worked out that it made sense for both teams.”
The expectation is for Swanson to bring quality innings out of the bullpen for the Jays, something that hurt them time and time again in 2022. With three more years on his contract before heading to free agency, Atkins believes that Swanson could be a key member of the Jays’ pen for a long time to come.
“The stuff has been improving and we feel like we have him at a very strong point in his career,” Atkins said. “And he’s still very young.”
The addition of Macko, however, shouldn’t be overlooked. Currently, he is rated as the Blue Jays’ eighth-best prospect, with a projected ETA in the majors of 2024, according to MLB.com. Born in Slovakia, but a permanent resident of Canada, Macko hasn’t seen the field too much in recent times, but that doesn’t change the fact that Atkins believes the six-foot-tall lefty could become one of the team’s biggest prospects.
“If we can put him into a position where he can sustain and haul a full season of innings he could become easily one of the better prospects in baseball,” Atkins said. “He’s got the arsenal to do that.”
Was a pitcher with one, maybe two good seasons under his belt, and a prospect who could be considered a project worth it for Hernandez? Only time will tell, but it’s likely that the Blue Jays thought Hernandez would become too expensive for them when he hit free agency next winter, prompting the move. It is also worth noting that Hernandez is coming off a down season, where he only hit 25 home runs. For reference, he hit a career-high 32 in 2021, and in 50 games in 2020, he hit seven.
The Jays’ outfield was starting to look set, when Atkins signed Kevin Kiermaier just weeks later. A unit including Kiermaier, George Springer, and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. looked to be the solution, but once again, Atkins wasn’t done shaking up the previous core.
Gurriel, alongside promising catching prospect, Gabriel Moreno, was dealt to the Arizona Diamondbacks in exchange for Daulton Varsho, a trade that divided fans between those who thought it was a good deal, and those who thought this was pure insanity from Atkins.
To the credit of those who claim insanity, it is hard to process trading a player who can give you solid numbers at the plate in Gurriel, and one of the better prospects in all of baseball, for a player that hasn’t been talked about too much. A key thing to keep in mind, however, is that Varsho played for the Diamondback, one of the worst teams in baseball in 2022, and as such, was overlooked for what he is.
A deeper dive into Varsho reveals that he is exactly what the Blue Jays are looking for right now. The 26-year-old hit 27 home runs in Arizona last season, finishing the campaign with 74 RBIs. Varsho also adds something the Blue Jays have been searching for, and for quite some time; a left-handed bat that can do some damage.
That’s just what he can do at the plate, however, and it’s almost certainly going to get better in the AL East, a place notoriously friendly for hitters, but in the field, Varsho is just as impressive. He can play anywhere you ask of him in the outfield, providing flexibility, but if the Jays ever need him to, he can gear up, and catch a game behind the plate.
Varsho turned in a WAR of 4.9 in 2022, while Gurriel, for contrast, had a 2.2, and Hernandez saw his at 2.8. Of course, it’s not the end-all-be-all, and nothing is ever guaranteed, but on the surface, the Varsho acquisition has the makings of one of the most defining trades of Atkins’ Blue Jays tenure, for better, or for worse.
There has been no shortage of difficult decisions to make this offseason, and Atkins has navigated all of them relatively well. Whether it was cutting bait with Ross Stripling, not allowing a big season, when Stripling knew he was in range of a nice payday, to cloud his vision, or bringing in Chris Bassitt to strengthen the rotation, you can’t claim a lack of vision or planning in his decision making.
We will never know if the former Blue Jays’ core was on the verge of breaking out, but truthfully, things had gone stale, and it felt like the team was spinning its wheels by the end of the season. As much as it’s hard to see so many fan favourites go, the returns could potentially be big pieces in what takes the Jays over the hump, and brings them a third World Series championship.
Could this blow up in Atkins’ face? Of course, there’s no crystal ball to tell us how the season will play out, but if there’s one thing you should expect to see, it’s a reinvigorated team, and one that’s ready to take the next step. A new core, and a new manager, for Atkins’ sake, this needs to work, but that’s a story for a different day.
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