Derek Jeter is used to winning. So when the fourth year of his ownership reign of the Miami Marlins ended with 67-95 record, he and Bruce Sherman were determined to become competitive. The club took a big step in that direction pre-lockout, making multiple moves to improve the major league roster for 2022. The biggest of these moves happened last week.
Back in 2019, the Marlins believed they had JT Realmuto’s heir apparent in Jorge Alfaro, especially after he hit .262/.312/.425 while tossing out 33% of his runners. But after hitting a combined .240/.282/.343 over the COVID-stricken 2020 season and an injury hampered 2021 while being a bottom of the barrel framer and far and away the league leader in passed balls in his age 27-28 seasons and with no prospects close to a major league ready berth, catcher clearly became the biggest gaping hole on the Marlins’ 40-man roster. In a thin market that is only getting thinner as baseball evolves around the catching position, the Marlins hit a home run by acquiring Jacob Stallings, a 31-year-old Gold Glove winner with three years of control remaining on his contract. Headed to the Pittsburgh Pirates are RHP Zach Thompson, OF Connor Scott (Fish on the Farm’s #13 prospect) and RHP Kyle Nicolas (#18).
Stallings comes to the Marlins less than a month away from his 32nd birthday. Drafted by the Pirates in the seventh round in 2012 out of the University of North Carolina where he hit .293/.396/.437 over two seasons, Stallings’ MiLB career was a rags-to-riches story. Never ranked a top 30 prospect by MLB Pipeline, Stallings was still grinding it out in AAA into his age 28 season and he successfully passed through waivers twice. But in 2019, things started clicking for Stallings. Serving as the Pirates backup catcher, he stuck with the MLB team the entire year and performed well above his career MiLB numbers. In 71 games, Stallings hit .262/.325/.382 with six homers and held his K rate under 20%. Above his offense though, the backstop begun proving his defensive prowess at the big league level, posting a 1.4 dWAR.
This season, after the shortened 2020, Stallings got the starting nod and played in by far the most baseball games he has ever played in a single season. At the back end of the lineup, Stallings was frustrating for opposing pitchers whom he made earn their outs and stretched their arms out. His 11.5% walk rate ranked 13th among 68 qualified catchers and was a primary factor for his respectable .335 OBP. On defense, Stallings was otherworldly; the best catcher in the NL and one of the best defenders in all of baseball. From behind the plate, Stallings saved a total of 21 runs, second to only Rockies’ infielder Ryan McMahon. In addition, he did not allow a single passed ball , the only catcher that played over 500 innings to accomplish that feat an extending a streak that spans nearly two calendar years. Per Statcast, he ranked 17th out of 59 catchers in pitch framing efficiency.
In Stallings, the Marlins get an experienced player who is an absolute wizard behind the plate, who knows how to handle a young pitching staff and who does more at the plate than the league average catcher. He will be under team control until 2026. So, in addition to Zach Thompson who came up in one of the Marlins’ multiple moments of rotational need and impressed, what did a Gold Glove backstop cost in terms of prospects?
RHP Kyle Nicolas
2021 Stats (A+-AA): 99 IP, 4.18 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 136/49 K/BB
Nicolas, a soon-to-be 23 year old, is a product of the shortened 2020 Draft from Ball State University. After beginning the 2021 season with the A+ Beloit Snappers, the 6’4”, 223 specimen got his call up to AA at a pretty precarious time: right after his worst career start. While he was thought to be joining the Blue Wahoos to fill in for Jake Eder and Max Meyer who were participating in the MLB Futures Game at All-Star Weekend, Nicolas stuck with the AA team for the rest of the season and performed well by overall metrics. In five starts and 25.2 IP with the Wahoos, Nicolas tossed to a 2.10 ERA via a 31/13 K/BB and 50/25 K/BB.
Nicolas is prized for his heavy fastball velocity that is capable of triple digits but he also has a nasty primary breaker. He also owns a decent budding changeup.
So what still needs to be done? Nicolas and his big frame and levers did show he is prone to losing the zone from start to start. He also showed that his velo can dip as he gets later into innings and the changeup, although usable, has some ground to make up on his other two offerings. Nicolas ended the year on a very strong note, tossing his longest career outing of 6.2 IP on August 24th. With size, heat and a good mix, Nicolas is a few adjustments away from proving he can stick as a big league rotational piece. At the very least, his high floor is that of a dominant high leverage reliever.
OF Connor Scott
2021 Stats (A+): .276/.333/.446, 10 HR, 41 XBH, 92/31 K/BB
Since being in the organization since 2017 through a down year in 2019 and a lost 2020, people have forgotten the name Connor Scott. In 2021, the Florida native and Plant High School alum proved he is just getting started.
Connor Scott is still just a recently turned 22 year old. People forget that. Playing against competition nearly a year and a half older than him on average in the High A ranks, Scott had an impressive season. He began making impressions by showing up to camp quite a bit visibly larger than his 6’3”, 187 listed size. He also looked like he knew how to use the added mass with a stronger swing that had a more straight through line drive inducing action. The improved size and swing were a major catalyst for Scott that he carried through the entire season.
Scott began 2021 with the A+ Snappers. After missing two weeks beginning at the end of May with a foot injury, Scott struggled through June and most of July. Starting late in July though, Scott’s numbers began to spike. From July 25th through the end of the season, he hit .322/.356/.557 with a 144 wRC+ while keeping his strikeout rate at a manageable 22%. After playing in just 27 games in 2019 and of course missing all of 2020, Scott is a guy who’s career has been very disjointed.
To see him come back in the best physical shape of his career, remain healthy for most of the season and play his best baseball at the highest level he’s ever played at while still facing off against hitters nearly a year and a half older than him on average was very encouraging and a potential turning point in his minor league career.
Scott joins a Pirates organization in the midst of a rebuild but also a system that holds a cornerstone center fielder at the big league level in Bryan Reynolds as well as several near major league ready outfield prospects in Travis Swaggerty and Scott clone, Calvin Mitchell. With Scott still at least a year away from the majors, the Pirates have the freedom to take their time was Scott and assure carry over from his strong finish at A+ last year to the upper minors beginning in 2022. If he can, Scott, who holds elite sprint speed and a plus glove, still has the potential for all five tools and could stick as a starting center fielder at the next level.
As the old adage goes, you need to give up value to get value and both clubs did both of those things in this trade. The Marlins filled the biggest hole on their roster, not just at the big league level but throughout the entire organization with one of the best backstops in baseball and the rebuilding Pirates bolstered their outfield with a youthful potential five tool prospect. Sometimes, trades are mutually beneficial for both sides. The Pirates and Marlins matched up perfectly and executed a very reciprocal deal.