Assessing 2023 MLB front offices: Ross Atkins and the Toronto Blue Jays

 General Manager of the Toronto Blue Jays Ross Atkins.
General Manager of the Toronto Blue Jays Ross Atkins. / Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Ross Atkins front office WAA impact: +6.1 games for Toronto Blue Jays. Rank in MLB: 4. Rank in division: 3.

If in years to come Ross Atkins is remembered for only one thing coming out of the 2023 season, it may be his willingness to trade his farm system’s prize possession, catcher Gabe Moreno, to Arizona.

A star of the Diamondbacks’ run to the NLCS, Moreno (+3.1 Wins Above Average) had a season that would have made him a contender for Rookie of the Year honors except for the presence of his own teammate, Corbin Carroll.  

If that trade is Atkins’ legacy of 2023, it would be a disservice to the Jays’ chief executive. Granted, the deal was a net short-term loser for the Jays (more on that in a bit).

But it also overshadows the fact that the totality of Atkins’ personnel decisions since the conclusion of the 2022 postseason actually improved Toronto’s talent base to the tune of +6.1 games as measured by Wins Above Average (WAA). That’s a big deal because the Jays only qualified for postseason play by one game.

So, in a very real sense, Atkins maneuvered Toronto into a postseason position. He was one of only four GMs to elevate their team into the postseason by their personnel actions.  

For the record, WAA is used in this series of front office evaluations because it is a zero-based version of WAR, therefore enabling valid approximations of impact against wins and losses.

Overall, the Atkins front office made only 36 personnel moves impacting a major league roster since the conclusion of the 2022 postseason. That’s a small number, but it was also an effective one. Of those moves, 21 helped the Blue Jays, while just 12 (the smallest number among any of the 20 GMs) were negative. The final three had neutral value.

Let’s deal with the Moreno swap up front. Three major league players were involved, Moreno and Lourdes Gurriel (+1.0) going to Arizona in exchange for Daulton Varsho (+2.0).

It’s a rare moment when three players, all of whom rate +1.0 or higher for short-term impact, change hands. The raw numbers swing the deal in Arizona’s favor by +2.1 short-term. The long-term impact, obviously, could be greater, given Moreno’s developmental potential.

But Atkins was able to overcome that net talent loss through a succession of other actions. In fact, the Blue Jays boss was one of only three front office execs whose 2023 statistical profile showed positive impact in all three major talent acquisition areas; trades, free agencies, and farm system callups.  

Here’s the full short-term and long-term statistical profile on the 2023 performance of the Atkins front office. Again, all figures reflect group Wins Above Average.

Acquired by trade, waiver claim or purchase:

  • Since October 2022, 8 players, +2.1 net impact
  • Prior to October 2022, 13 players, +0.6 net impact

Signed as a free agent or extended for multiple seasons:

  • Since October 2022, 7 players, +4.6 net impact
  • Prior to October 2022, 5 players, +1.7 net impact

System products:

  • Since October 2022, 5 players, +1.2 net impact
  • Prior to October 2022, 8 players, +2.7 net impact

Traded away, waived, sold, released or lost to free agency

  • Since October 2022, 16 players, -1.8 net impact
  • Prior to October 2022, 30 players, +1.1 net impact

The eight players Atkins brought to Toronto in straight-up deals with other clubs added +2.1 WAA of value. Varsho (+2.0) was the preponderance of that.

His signing of free agent castaway Kevin Kiermaier (one year, $9 million) seemed extravagant at the time, given Kiermaier’s sub-.250 career average, his age (33) and the fact that his long-time employer, the Tampa Bay Rays, had given up on him. But Kiermaier was a force in Toronto, adding a .265 average to his normally stellar outfield defense. His +2.5 WAA was a personal best since 2017.

With a veteran cast in place, Atkins only leaned on his farm system for five fresh bodies in 2023, and only one of those for appreciable playing time.  Infielder Davis Schneider didn’t debut in August, but logged 141 plate appearances in the stretch run. He did more than his job, batting .276 with eight homers, a .603 slugging percentage and +1.4 WAA.

How good is +1.4 WAA over 141 plate appearances? Stretched out over a full 600 plate appearances, it translates to just short of 6.0 WAA. Only two players actually had a +6.0 WAA season in 2023. They were Mookie Betts and Ronald Acuna Jr.

Somewhat quietly, Atkins has established himself as a front office force in Toronto. Since his appointment following the 2015 season, he’s improved the Jays’ short-term profile by an average of just under four games per season. This is the second season his impact on the team exceeded the margin by which the Jays qualified for post-season play.

In the world of front office evaluation, that’s about the nicest thing you can say.