Teoscar Hernandez trade was a necessary move in Blue Jays' retooling

Some trades are hard to swallow for fans. You can add this one to the list.

Late Wednesday morning, news broke that the Toronto Blue Jays traded right-fielder Teoscar Hernández, the second-longest tenured player on the club, to the Seattle Mariners in exchange for reliever Erik Swanson and minor-league pitcher Adam Macko.

Hernández, 30, was projected to earn around $14.5 million in arbitration this offseason before becoming a free agent after 2023, while Swanson will earn around $1.6 million in arbitration and won’t be a free agent until 2026.

This might not be the sexy trade Jays fans anticipated this winter, but this is the reality of what retooling looks like. It isn’t pretty; it’s functional, and sometimes fan favourites are sacrificed for the greater good.

Still, I like what Toronto accomplished with this swap. Here are a few early thoughts on the Blue Jays’ first big move of the offseason.

Teoscar Hernandez may have been a fan favourite in Toronto, but his trade to Seattle was a much-needed move to acquire some pitching depth. (Getty Images)
Teoscar Hernandez may have been a fan favourite in Toronto, but his trade to Seattle was a much-needed move to acquire some pitching depth. (Getty Images)

Why this trade makes sense for Toronto

Long before the end of the 2022 season or the epic burnout of Toronto’s abbreviated playoff stint, the Blue Jays were thinking ahead to their 2023 roster. It seemed inevitable the club would deal one of its corner outfielders, Lourdes Gurriel Jr. or Hernández, for pitching help.

Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins said three-to-four teams were interested in Hernández, but the Mariners gave Toronto the best offer.

“No trade is ever easy,” Atkins said hours after news of the trade broke. “And it always comes down to alternatives for both sides. And, fortunately, it worked out that it made sense for both teams.”

While Hernández swatted two homers in Game 2 of the AL Wild Card Series, it was Toronto’s bullpen that faltered in that contest. The bullpen was also a huge issue in 2021, meaning this type of aggressiveness to reel in some relief help was long overdue. Swanson, a top-of-the-line late-inning option, is a big pull for the Jays.

With the chunky salaries of Hernández and Raimel Tapia off the books, the Jays are now far more flexible. The club is free to take a stab at a bigger outfield free agent, or simply mix and match its existing outfield before deciding on the next step.

Could Toronto move George Springer to right field permanently? It might be a little too early for that career-defining transition, but now the Jays at least have the option.

"If that does present itself, where there's an everyday centre fielder that we can add [and] it makes our team better, I know George will be open to [moving to right field],” Atkins said.

By shipping Hernández out of town, the Blue Jays also get a chance to improve their outfield defence. For every great play Hernández made with his arm (10 outfield assists in 2022, tied for second in the AL), he was good for two mental errors or a lackadaisical effort chasing a ball down the line on occasion.

Thoughts On the Blue Jays’ return

Swanson was fantastic in 2022. The 29-year-old North Dakota native tapped into something special, weaving a career-low 1.68 ERA (222 ERA+) in 53.2 innings while striking out 11.7 batters per nine with just 1.7 walks per nine. He should enter 2023 as Toronto’s top choice for the eighth-inning role.

Any concern with Swanson originates from a relatively unproven track record; the right-hander has pitched just 89 innings over the last two seasons.

“He's still very young,” Atkins said of Swanson. “So, I think that the case with relievers, sometimes, is that there is some level of transition, especially through a pandemic. But his weapons project to be continuing to pitch well, and what he did over the course of entire year last year is very encouraging for us.”

Swanson is also special in a lot of ways. In 2022, he ranked in the 90th percentile or higher in several important categories, such as average exit velocity, strikeout percentage, hard-hit percentage, chase rate and expected slugging.

Swanson’s splitter is a work of art. In 2022, that pitch limited hitters to a .129 batting average and an average exit velocity of 82.4 mph. It was the fifth-best split-finger in all of baseball, according to Statcast’s run value metric. Swanson has some deadly weapons to get hitters out.

The other asset in the trade, A-ball starter Macko, adds to the intrigue of this deal, too. The left-hander was born in Slovakia, moved to Ireland, and then settled in Vauxhall, Alberta, for high school. He ranked as Seattle’s eighth-best prospect (per MLB Pipeline) before the trade and is still a long way from contributing at the major-league level.

Are more moves coming?

Yes. You don’t dish your power-hitting cleanup guy for a bullpen arm unless you’re set on replacing him, so now Toronto has opened the door to many intriguing possibilities. Brandon Nimmo and Andrew Benintendi make sense as free agent replacements, while the likes of Bryan Reynolds, Lars Nootbaar, and Dylan Carlson compose a deep trade market.

Atkins said finances weren’t the driving force behind trading Hernández – Rogers Communications has them covered on the money side of things. Rather, the trade was about “increased opportunity,” both in-house (through bench players and minor-leaguers) and now on the open market.

“There will also be other opportunities via trade and free agency, as I mentioned earlier, and we will exhaust those,” the Blue Jays general manager said.

Last winter, the Blue Jays were high rollers in free agency. It appears the front office is prepared for another offseason of splashy moves as the club ramps up for a competitive 2023 season.

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