Could the Blue Jays improve by dealing from their catching depth? Let’s make a deal

Could the Blue Jays improve by dealing from their catching depth? Let’s make a deal

Could the Blue Jays improve by dealing from their catching depth? Let’s make a deal

This offseason has already brought significant changes to the Blue Jays roster. And more could be coming.

The Blue Jays traded Teoscar Hernández to the Seattle Mariners for right-handed reliever Erik Swanson and pitching prospect Adam Macko. Though he wasn’t Toronto’s only trade chip. The Blue Jays also have an abundance of high-end catching depth with three catchers who could all reasonably be starters on many other teams.

Alejandro Kirk, 24, was an All-Star and Silver Slugger in 2022 and hit .285/.372/.415 with 14 HR and a 129 wRC+. Danny Jansen, 27, tapped into his power, hitting .260/.339/.516, with 15 HR and 140 wRC+ in 72 games, after several injuries sent him to the IL. Gabriel Moreno, 22, is Toronto’s top prospect and projects as a future All-Star.

Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins has maintained the team is comfortable carrying three catchers on its major-league roster next year, but remains open to discussing trade scenarios. With the free-agent catching market fairly thin this winter, the Blue Jays may find themselves in an advantageous position with their extra catcher.

“There are teams that are extremely interested in all three of them,” Atkins said. “If we are to entertain that, we’re going to have to think about what that means for our major-league team and we’re entirely focused on winning, so having that depth right now, a lot of energy and effort is focused on what that means with all three of them here. But with the amount of interest that teams do have in each of them, we have to at least answer the phone and think about what that means if there are other potential avenues to cover other areas.”

(Danny Jansen: G Fiume/Getty Images)

Toronto’s three catchers are at different stages of their careers, opening up a multitude of trade possibilities. Jansen is two years away from free agency, and might better suit a team looking for an experienced catcher for the short term. The return for Jansen presumably wouldn’t be as significant as one involving the younger catchers. Kirk comes with four years of team control, yet he’s proven at the MLB level. Moreno has only played 25 MLB games, but he comes with the upside that accompanies shiny prospects.

As for what the Blue Jays are looking for, they have an opening in the outfield that ideally is filled by a left-handed bat. Second base is also a position they could upgrade. And, like every team, the Blue Jays could also add more young impact pitching.

Do the Blue Jays have to trade one of their catchers this offseason? No, they won’t force it. It might also depend on what they can get done in free agency. But using an organizational strength to fill other pressing needs might be the best use of it, especially if their payroll is getting tighter.

With that in mind, I canvassed The Athletic beat writers covering catcher-starved teams to draw up their best hypothetical trade offers for one of Toronto’s coveted backstops.

What follows are eight intriguing deals and the rationale behind each. The Athletic’s Jim Bowden also weighed in with his assessment from a front-office point of view. Aside from the teams mentioned below, the Milwaukee Brewers could also be in the mix for an upgrade at catcher and have some pitching that could interest the Blue Jays. The same goes for the Houston Astros and to some extent the Arizona Diamondbacks. Now, the trade proposals:

Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak has made it clear acquiring a catcher is a top priority. He has not had to search for a starting catcher for two decades, so he’s in uncharted waters as he looks to lock down a replacement for Yadier Molina.

The Cardinals are in a unique position. They’re flexible enough to sign a free agent, and with catching prospect Iván Herrera in Triple A, they aren’t necessarily bound to ink a catcher to a long-term deal. There are certain traits Mozeliak looks for when identifying potential targets, with defence being high on the list. However, it doesn’t seem he’ll overvalue defensive stability over perceived offensive production.

A trade might be the optimal route if the Cardinals are searching for the best all-around catcher. Jansen is intriguing because he could serve as a two-year stop-gap, buying Herrera ample time to continue developing. If the Cardinals want a long-term option with offensive upside, Kirk is their guy, especially when factoring in his low strikeout and high walk rates.

Should he elect to decide to trade for a catcher, Mozeliak is expected to target young backstops with multiple years of control. St. Louis has a deep farm system and a plethora of young talent in the majors. Toronto needs left-handed bats and is in need of an outfielder. Nootbaar, 25, who isn’t eligible for arbitration until 2025, fits that mould and could be a key piece in a trade for either Kirk or Jansen. Throw in a highly touted pitching prospect, such as 2021 first-round pick Michael McGreevy, and the Cardinals would have a viable trade without sacrificing too much of their overall development. — Katie Woo

Bowden’s verdict: I think the Cardinals will value game calling, pitch framing, leadership and the ability to shut down the running game over offence in trying to improve at catcher. As much as I love Kirk’s bat, I think St. Louis would prefer a better defensive catcher. For the Blue Jays, it’s probably time to let Moreno be the full-time catcher with Kirk as his backup and most of the time as the DH. Therefore, I think Jansen, who has only two years of team control left, is the one Toronto should move.

I like the idea of Nootbaar being part of the return because the Blue Jays badly need left-handed bats to better balance the lineup, but in my opinion, they should consider Alec Burleson over him; he’s also a left-handed hitter, and long term I like his bat better than Nootbaar’s. Both are expendable from the Cardinals’ perspective, with Jordan Walker, Dylan Carlson, and Tyler O’Neill their expected starting outfield in 2023 and Moisés Gómez in the minors as additional outfield depth.

I think the Blue Jays should try to get a future bullpen piece back in the trade, too — someone like Inohan Paniagua, a hard-throwing righty who struck out 145 in 137 2/3 innings as a starter last year in A ball. He could rise fast to the majors as a set-up reliever. Nootbaar or Burleson and Paniagua for Jansen would be my suggested trade for the Blue Jays.

Keep in mind, the Cardinals prefer Sean Murphy of the A’s over Jansen and could also sign a defensive catcher such as Christian Vázquez in free agency without making a trade.

Trent Grisham failed to record a hit in the NLCS and slashed .184/.284/.341 in the regular season, but his stock might be headed back up after a second Gold Glove Award and his performance across the first two rounds of the playoffs. The 26-year-old remains an elite defensive center fielder and one of the game’s most discerning hitters. Maybe too discerning: Amid his worst offensive season, Grisham led the league in taking called strike threes. Still, the left-handed hitter’s on-base skills, position and the upcoming ban on shifts could make him a convenient fit in Toronto.

Although Jansen clearly had the better 2022, Grisham would come with one more year of club control. MLB Trade Rumors projects he’ll make $2.6 million in 2023. That’s an attractive price for someone who just logged 2.1 fWAR in spite of his struggles at the plate. Given his age, it’s reasonable to think he might yet recapture some of the two-way prowess he showed in 2020 when he compiled 2.2 WAR in only 59 games.

The Padres, for their part, are still optimistic he can do that in San Diego. Plus, without him, they might have to bet on Fernando Tatis Jr. making a successful return from surgery and suspension as a center fielder. But, provided they line up another deal for a starting outfielder, Jansen could give them the kind of boost they seek at catcher.

The A’s Murphy, whom the Padres expressed interest in this summer, would cost substantially more than Jansen. Austin Nola has supplied a 95 OPS+ as a Padre, Luis Campusano’s future with the organization remains uncertain, and a Jansen-Nola duo could be productive. Jansen has a .755 career OPS against right-handers, including a .863 mark this past season. Nola, meanwhile, has a .769 career OPS against left-handers. — Dennis Lin

Bowden’s verdict: The Padres first have to decide where they’ll play Tatis in the outfield. I’d play him in right field and Juan Soto in left field, and if that’s what they decide to do, I would keep the Gold Glove defence of Grisham in between them. I do like the idea of Jansen platooning with Nola behind the plate, and maybe there’s a three-way deal where Campusano could go to the Cardinals, Burleson and Paniagua to the Blue Jays and Jansen to the Padres. I like that concept better for all three teams.

Since it’s only money, the Cubs are more likely to upgrade their roster by signing free agents instead of trading away major-league talent. Now that Willson Contreras has declined a qualifying offer — diminishing the already low probability the All-Star catcher will return to Chicago — the Cubs continue to look for a co-starter to share the workload with Yan Gomes.

The two-year, $13 million contract Gomes signed last offseason is probably more similar to what the Cubs are planning for this position. The Cubs and Blue Jays also both have value-obsessed, process-oriented front offices — even by the standards of the modern game — which would seem to make it harder to find a match for a trade.

The Blue Jays have placed Ian Happ on their radar during the multiple trading cycles the Cubs have considered dealing him. Happ, who can become a free agent after the 2023 season, made significant changes as a switch-hitter and an outfielder to blossom into an All-Star and a Gold Glove winner this year. The Cubs are planning to explore the possibility of a long-term contract extension during Happ’s final year in the arbitration system, though their recent track record suggests he’ll be traded this summer if the team again drops out of the playoff race.

If the Cubs graded Jansen high enough as a catcher, he would make sense as a target. To bridge the gap between that timeframe and Happ’s walk year, the Cubs could include Adbert Alzolay, a talented pitcher who has struggled to stay healthy throughout his career. Right now, the Cubs view Alzolay as an asset for their bullpen, someone who can throw multiple innings and attack certain parts of a lineup. The Cubs are relatively deep in outfield prospects and young relievers. — Patrick Mooney

Bowden’s verdict: I would not make this trade if I were the Cubs, but if I were the Blue Jays, I would call a press conference to announce the deal if we received this offer. Happ’s versatility and switch-hitting ability combined with his .342 on-base percentage and 4.4 bWAR last season make it a no-brainer for Toronto. They could play him at second base or in left field and let him be another table setter for the middle of their lineup. Alzolay, if healthy, could provide swing-and-miss innings for the bullpen, which is an area they’ve been looking to improve. But if I’m the Cubs, I’m pursuing Moreno because I think they need to be thinking longer term than Jansen.

Chicago White Sox send RHP Liam Hendriks, OF Gavin Sheets, OF Yoelqui Céspedes and $10 million to Blue Jays for Kirk

The White Sox have a couple of roster holes to patch and are trying to mostly figure it out with trades since they’re light on payroll flexibility. They have a couple of prospects to play around with, but their position of relative strength to deal from is the bullpen.

Yasmani Grandal is coming off an awful, injury-riddled year. Four seasons of Kirk would allow the Sox to think about their catching position after Grandal’s contract runs out. If they’re both playing great, Kirk hit well enough last year to serve as the DH when he’s not catching.

With the free-agent pool bereft of arms, it would be hard for the Blue Jays to upgrade their bullpen more than a Liam Hendriks reunion. Hendriks is owed $29 million over the next two seasons, with one of the funkiest club options/buyouts for the 2024 season and a five-team no-trade list. A flexor strain limited his usage down the stretch in 2022, but he normally wouldn’t blanch at a return to being a multi-inning, high-leverage fireman if the Jays like Jordan Romano in the ninth. Hendriks has a 188 ERA+ and struck out 38.8 percent of opposing hitters in 239 innings since 2019.

Unless you’re from the Tony La Russa school of player value, Hendriks probably isn’t as valuable as Kirk, is more expensive and has half as many years of control. But Toronto could use a left-handed bat. I’m not sure other organizations want him playing right field as much as the Sox did, but Gavin Sheets is certainly left-handed. He owns a 118 wRC+ against right-handers in his two seasons and could platoon with Toronto’s righty-heavy crew. Prospect Yoelqui Céspedes has plate discipline issues but is as toolsy as they come. Every team needs a fourth outfielder who occasionally hits a hanger to Saskatchewan.

Since the Sox are prepared to pay Hendriks in $1.5 million annual installments through 2033 if they declined his 2024 club option, what if we split the difference and just paid the Jays $1 million annually for the same time span, to cover $10 million of the $29 million total owed to Hendriks? — James Fegan

Bowden’s verdict: I’m rejecting the trade if I’m the Blue Jays. I have four years of control of Kirk compared to two years of control of Hendriks, and we all know the risks that come with closers from year to year. Also, I like Céspedes’s tools, but I’m not sure how much he’s going to hit. I know Kirk is going to hit and get on base.

The Red Sox haven’t shied from trading within the division in recent years. It’s not ideal, but it’s happened and the Blue Jays have a surplus in an area of need.

Boston traded Vázquez at the deadline and then designated Kevin Plawecki for assignment, finishing the year off with a still-developing Connor Wong and newly acquired Reese McGuire. The pair held their own, but Chaim Bloom, who doesn’t often offer definitives, said at the end of the season they would be looking to upgrade at the catcher position.

Either Jansen or Kirk could offer an upgrade. If the Jays need big-league pitching depth, the Red Sox have stockpiled some over the past year, but wouldn’t want to dig too deep into their own stash.

Right-hander Josh Winckowski could be an intriguing piece. The 24-year-old endured a tough rookie season (5.89 ERA), doesn’t strike out many, but hauled innings when they needed them. There’s room for improvement, but he could be a depth piece and the Jays are familiar with him since they drafted him. The Jays might be more interested in right-hander Kutter Crawford who turns 27 in April. Crawford made 21 appearances in 2022 including 12 starts. The surface numbers don’t look great, with a 5.47 ERA, but aside from Brayan Bello, Crawford became the most reliable pitcher among their rookies who contributed and provided valuable multi-inning outings from the bullpen, too.

If the Jays are seeking a lefty-hitting outfielder, Jarren Duran fits that bill despite his struggles at the plate. A change of scenery could be what he needs. Regardless, his speed would be an asset off the bench with the 2023 rule changes. Would a Winckowski-Duran or Crawford-Duran package be enough to net Jansen? The Red Sox would certainly have to add a bigger piece for Kirk, someone perhaps like right-hander Bryan Mata. But Jansen might be a good option to split time behind the plate with Wong for the Red Sox. — Jen McCaffrey

Bowden’s verdict: If I’m the Blue Jays, I’m going to pass because I agree with Red Sox’s top evaluators that Duran isn’t going to hit enough. He doesn’t get great jumps or take the best angles in the outfield, though he does outrun some of his mistakes. He struggles against off-speed pitches, which leads me to believe he has depth perception issues, so I wouldn’t be interested in trading for him unless I could test his eyes first. Crawford and Winckowski are solid throw-ins in this type of deal but not enough for Toronto to pull the trigger on this package.

Max Kepler is coming off a down season, but he’s a 29-year-old left-handed hitter with a league-average 101 OPS+ for his career and he’s one of the best defensive right fielders, with the ability to handle centre field in a pinch. Kepler draws walks, rarely strikes out and has averaged 25 homers per 162 games, including 36 in 2019. He figures to benefit as much as any hitter from the shift limitations coming next season. He’s signed for $8.5 million in 2023, with a $10 million team option or $1 million buyout for 2024.

Canadian pitching prospect Jordan Balazovic was a consensus top-100 global prospect going into 2022, but he struggled for most of the year before getting on track in September. He still has mid-rotation or better upside at age 24 and could be in the majors very quickly if he’s back on track. Cole Sands profiles as an MLB-ready back-end starter and posted a 5.87 ERA with 28 strikeouts in 30 2/3 innings for the Twins as a 24-year-old rookie last season.

And since Jansen is projected to make $4.8 million less than Kepler in 2023, the Twins will even agree to cover that salary.

Because the Twins have a ton of left-handed-hitting corner outfield depth, in the majors and the high minors, they could also offer up a younger, pre-arbitration player like Trevor Larnach or Nick Gordon if the Blue Jays aren’t into Kepler (or his minimal team control). Alex Kirilloff or Matt Wallner could be options as well, although they look more like long-term building blocks in Minnesota. — Aaron Gleeman

Bowden’s verdict: I don’t like the trade for the Blue Jays, but the concept makes sense as they’d get a left-handed hitting platoon outfielder in Kepler and a couple of young, affordable arms. However, Kepler has never moved the needle for me, and I’d rather sign Brandon Nimmo, Cody Bellinger or Andrew Benintendi in free agency than make this deal. Also, I worry about the health of Balazovic, who in the last two years has walked four batters per nine innings after starting his career by walking just two per nine. Is he healthy? Sands is just a back-of-rotation depth starter for me. I need more quality and less quantity in a Jansen trade.

This should be simple to execute, right? Chris Antonetti, Mike Chernoff, Mark Shapiro and Atkins were tied at the hip in Cleveland for years. Plus, they discussed a similar trade scenario eight months ago when the Guardians dangled José Ramírez in the event they couldn’t ink him to a long-term contract.

Then, Cleveland preferred Moreno. But at that time, Bo Naylor, the organization’s top-catching prospect, was coming off a wretched 2021. After a breakout 2022 campaign, Naylor is ready to test the major-league waters, and Cleveland wants a talented catcher to pair him with, to ease him in and perhaps to claim some at-bats at designated hitter or first base or somewhere else.

Moreno might fit that description, given his athleticism. Kirk or Jansen would be a fine fit, too.

Kirk’s offensive profile fits their style perfectly. They salivate over players who walk as much or more than they strike out. And with an unoccupied DH spot, there would be plenty of opportunities for both him and Naylor.

Jansen would make sense, too, since the Guardians are, above all else, seeking an upgrade over what they had last year in Austin Hedges and Luke Maile. Jansen does that. Most catchers do that.

So, which price tag is most palatable? Cleveland has stockpiles of middle infield and starting pitching prospects to offer, but that would probably be more attractive to Oakland in a Murphy trade, or another rebuilding team. Toronto wants major-league help. That might be tricky. Many of Cleveland’s options are either relatively unproven or too essential for the Guardians to consider.

Would Zach Plesac interest the Blue Jays in a Jansen swap? Does a Cal Quantrill homecoming make sense as part of a package for Kirk or Moreno? Is there a Cleveland reliever who piques their interest? Obviously, there would be other pieces involved in these puzzles, but that’s where I’m sort of stumped. If it’s left-handed-hitting outfield help Toronto seeks, Cleveland has some intriguing options, but they might not be as established as the Jays would prefer. Will Brennan seems bound to be a dude who racks up hits, but he’ll have to prove that. George Valera is a Top 100 prospect on the cusp of the big leagues, but, again, he’s unproven. I can’t imagine Kwan going anywhere. — Zack Meisel

Editor’s note: While Zack hemmed and hawed over what the Guardians could do, Kaitlyn went ahead and suggested Quantrill and Valera for Kirk.

Bowden’s verdict: I think this is a fair-value trade for both sides. Blue Jays get another legitimate starter and a solid left-handed hitting outfield prospect. Guardians get a solution at catcher. Both sides should consider this trade.

Detroit Tigers send RHP Joe Jiménez and a lottery-ticket prospect to Blue Jays for Jansen

The Tigers and Jays were linked in trade discussions around the deadline, but a deal never happened. Might things be different with a second chance and a new front office leading the Tigers? There are a lot of reasons it makes sense.

First, the Tigers are likely to add a catcher to pair with the bat-first Eric Haase, who posted a 115 OPS+ last season. Kirk’s on-base profile has to be enticing for a team that needs to draw more walks. Jansen would also be an upgrade over anything in-house.

Secondly, the Tigers have a surplus of quality bullpen arms. Despite Detroit’s dreadful 2022, their bullpen ranked eighth in ERA. Joe Jiménez has only one remaining year of team control. He’s a former All-Star who rejuvenated his career last season with a 3.49 ERA and 12.2 K/9 to go along with elite underlying metrics. Closer Gregory Soto is a two-time All-Star, and though his lapses in command can be maddening and his whiff rates declined last season, he can hit triple-digits from the left side. He’s under team control for three more seasons. The Tigers could also sell high on a relief pitcher such as Alex Lange, whose curveball was among the best swing-and-miss pitches in the league last year.

The real question here, though, is whether the Tigers have enough organizational depth to put together a legitimate trade package. Jansen probably makes the most sense because he will require less to get. Jiménez and a lottery-ticket prospect could be a reasonable offer from the Tigers’ standpoint.

If the Tigers were to pursue Kirk or even Moreno, they would have to get serious about parting with one of their few legitimate prospects. They’d likely have to send Soto and a prospect such as Colt Keith or even Jackson Jobe to start the conversations. The Tigers and Blue Jays could probably work out a deal for Jansen that would benefit both sides. The question is whether Toronto will get better offers from teams in a better position to part with young talent. — Cody Stavenhagen

Bowden’s verdict: If I’m the Blue Jays, I offer Jansen for Jiménez and Austin Meadows. However, if I’m the Tigers, I need longer-term solutions than two years of Jansen. Therefore, they should pursue a trade for Moreno or Kirk. That said, a package of Jiménez and Meadows for Moreno or Kirk won’t work for the Blue Jays. Bottom line: I don’t see these teams matching up.

(Top photo of Alejandro Kirk: Joe Nicholson / USA Today)

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